Monday, October 10, 2005

Guatemalans Plead for Aid After Disaster

LA TIMES, Oct. 10, 2005

Guatemalans Plead for Aid After Disaster
Residents say the government's response to Hurricane
Stan is inadequate. Few bodies are recovered from the
site of a massive slide.

By Alex Renderos and Reed Johnson, Special to The

SANTIAGO ATITLAN, Guatemala — Rescue workers battled
with little success Sunday to retrieve bodies buried
under 40 feet of mud, while local officials and Maya
residents complained bitterly that the federal
response to the disaster was slow and inadequate.

Nearly five days after Hurricane Stan triggered
massive mudslides that devastated this region, wiping
out the entire village of Panabaj and apparently
killing hundreds of people, local officials struggled
to supply food and shelter to the survivors.

The Guatemalan government on Sunday reported that 519
people have died in the wake of last week's hurricane
and an additional 338 are missing across the country.
Nearly 90,000 people are living in shelters, including
3,000 in 31 makeshift camps here.

Maya farmers from neighboring towns used canoes to
haul corn, beans and clothes across Lake Atitlan to
give to survivors.

"We haven't received anything from the government,"
said Manuel Culan, an assistant to the mayor of this
lakeside town in the country's volcanic western
highlands. "Especially we are requesting economic aid
that is going to help us to buy some land for these

On Sunday afternoon, men and women stood in line
waiting to receive a hot meal of corn, beans and

About 2,500 of the refugees were from Panabaj, a
coffee-growing community of about 260 buildings that
was engulfed by a mudslide early Wednesday. Culan
estimated that 500 people may still lie there, many
buried as they slept.

Previously, government officials had said up to 1,500
might be dead. So far, about 70 bodies have been
retrieved from the area, where exhausted,
dispirited-looking local firemen and about 20 rescue
workers who flew in from Spain were still searching
Sunday night.

With so much time having passed and such a large
number missing, there was speculation that efforts
would be abandoned in some areas and the sites would
become mass graves.

As evening approached, the workers were being careful
not to take a wrong step and sink into the
quicksand-like muck. Yellow, orange and red sticks
planted in the ground guided their movements. Rescue
dogs barked as they sniffed for victims.

A vibrant center of Tzutuhil Maya culture, the
Santiago Atitlan region is known for maintaining its
traditional Indian ways despite outside political
pressures and the encroachment of tourism in some
villages that ring the picturesque, blue lake.

The region was a rallying place for Indian activism
during Guatemala's 35-year civil war, which left about
200,000 people dead, many of them Maya villagers. The
war ended in 1996.

On Sunday afternoon, about 500 people stood in a
drizzling rain in the central plaza here while an
evangelical pastor, Diego Sesos, urged them to help
their fellow Mayas.

"We're going to be united forever. This incident is
going to give us strength," Sesos, speaking in Mayan,
said through a microphone.

Salvador Sapalu, a Maya administrator of an
organization that works with poor children here, said
the area had not received federal support.

"The only thing you see here, these corn and these
beans, those have been provided by the local people,"
Sapalu said. "We don't even have medicines. There are
only three doctors for the entire town here. It could
be a kind of racism because these people are Indians."

Some agronomists and land experts have speculated that
erosion caused by deforestation and farming on the
volcanic slopes might have played a role in the
disaster. Deforestation has been rampant throughout
Central America, including Guatemala.

"Any form of agriculture runs the potential for
destabilization of the soils," said William W. Shaw, a
professor in the school of natural resources at the
University of Arizona at Tucson, in a telephone
interview. "When it's on volcanic slopes, that's a
real concern."

In other parts of Central America and southern Mexico,
where Hurricane Stan cut a ruinous swath, cleanup
efforts continued fitfully.

Touring devastated communities in the hard-hit
southern Mexican states of Chiapas and Oaxaca over the
weekend, President Vicente Fox declared the worst of
the crisis over. But much like New Orleans after
Hurricane Katrina, communities are struggling with
overwhelming health, sanitation and security woes.

In the Mexican city of Tapachula near the Guatemalan
border, the Coatan River burst its banks last week,
obliterating at least 3,000 homes and washing out the
four bridges that connect the community with the
outside world, said Alfonso Ochoa, a reporter with El
Orbe newspaper. He said authorities had found 15
bodies "but those were just the ones found in the
streets. We have no idea how many people are dead."

Ochoa said the city was low on food, potable water,
fuel, medicine, warm clothing and other necessities
needed to sustain its 300,000 people. He said cartons
of eggs that usually cost $1.40 were now selling for
four times that when they could be found at all. On
Sunday, Mexico City newspapers showed photos of
desperate residents scrambling for aid packages tossed
from army helicopters.

Ochoa said a couple of government ships had arrived
and were unloading supplies. But he said the relief
was too little and too slow.

"There is sadness, hunger and desperation," Ochoa
said. "We need more help." Summing up the devastation
to all of Central America and Mexico, Ochoa said,
"This is a disaster much greater than in Louisiana,
but it isn't getting the same attention."


Special correspondent Renderos reported from Santiago
Atitlan and Times staff writer Johnson from Mexico
City. Staff writer Marla Dickerson in Mexico City
contributed to this report.

1 comment:

Chapina said...

Thanks to Alicia for alerting me to this article.