Guatemala: First, volcanic eruption; then, devastating tropical storm


Update, 2pm PT: HOW TO HELP, after the jump. Above, this photo just posted to the Guatemalan Government's Flickr feed shows a spontaneous sinkhole ("hundimiento") 20 meters deep and 15 wide that appeared today in Zone 2 of Guatemala City, after overwhelming saturation of rains from tropical storm Agatha. Local press reports that it swallowed an entire 3-story building. Not Photoshop, sadly: these happen from time to time during major storms in part because of unstable geology, and in part, bad urban engineering—read more about it in the comments. A break in the over-stressed sewage pipes after the storm was the cause for this one. There are rumors of other sinkholes now forming nearby. See it on Google Maps. (News reports: Prensa Libre, and blogs)

Guatemala is in a state of crisis today after twin natural calamities struck: First, on May 27 the Pacaya volcano (just 19 miles from the capital) woke up in a bad mood. Lava flowed, black sand and rock and ash spewed everywhere. A newscaster covering the news near the volcano was killed by flying rocks.

Two days later on May 29, tropical storm "Agatha" struck, destroying homes, causing floods, and creating tens of thousands of internally displaced. Infrastructure in this country—where the majority live in poverty—is very poor, and ill-equipped to handle such a double blow. As of last night, official numbers on storm: about 30,000 "refugees," close to 120,000 evacuated, 93 dead and rising. Guatemala's one international airport has been has been closed for days, and just as it prepares to reopen today, there's word of new volcanic activity.

The poor always suffer the most when events like this happen, and the two events together caused surreal conditions: knee-deep black sand mud, and "instant concrete" that forms when rain meets ash, clogging up drains and fragile sewage systems. Said a friend on Twitter, "Water and sand everywhere… it's like the beach, only a lot less fun."

Today I learned that in the rural K'iche Maya pueblo where I volunteer with a non-profit, a local committee of community leaders is organizing to walk to other villages in the region, and check on damage, injuries, casualties. In rural areas, phones still aren't working, and many communities are only accessible by foot.

Guatemala isn't the only Central American nation affected: at least 10 are dead in El Salvador, and Honduras has declared a state of emergency.

Inset above, an image from the Guatemalan government's Flickr feed, of a child evacuated from a village near the volcano.

Here are documents related to the disaster (in Spanish). Reading and photos, and a guide to Twitter accounts and hashtags: Antigua Daily News, "Stop, Agatha, Stop!" And here's an item by Juliana Rincón Parra in Global Voices.


Renata Avila of Global Voices in Guatemala says,

I think that the best way to help now is to save the energy to help later: after the storm I am pretty sure we will face a nutrition crisis again because of lost crops and also a titanic task to rebuild communities. But if someone wants to donate in kind stuff here are the list of centers collecting items, and people can donate to These kids are amazing and are NOT corrupt.

I second the understanding that food crisis is imminent, and the best place to focus a desire to help. I traded texts with the K'iche village yesterday, and word is that most of the corn crops were devastated throughout that part of the highlands. I'd expect similar throughout the land. We're talking about a nation in which a large number of indigenous communities are still subsistence maize farmers, and Guatemala was already in the middle of an economic crisis and a hunger crisis—the success or failure of a corn crop can be a matter of life or death.

(PHOTOS: Top, Fotos: Paulo Raquec. Inset, Foto Presidencia/Eduardo González)