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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Guatemala -- Nature of the Disaster

The tropical storm that hit Guatemala and the volcanic erruption of Pacaya had relatively little press coverage in the American news. Several people have asked why are you there? Doesn't sound like much has happened. I suppose in comparison to a mega disaster like the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010 or the tsunami that hit Indonesia at the end of 2005 this is true. Fortunately in Guatemala, the loss of life is in the hundreds (maybe thousands -- no one really knows for sure) and not the hundreds of thousands. Many of the hardest hit areas in Guatemala are inaccessible, so no proper assessment has been (and perhaps will not be made).

So while the disaster in Guatemala does not compare in scale to that of Haiti and other places that have captivated us in recent years, there is still need. It is amazing how mega disasters desensitize people in multiple ways. First, it is very difficult if not impossible to conceptualize the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Those individuals become a personless, faceless number. Our minds simply cannot comprehend such loss; the humanless number is a way our pysches protect us and allow us to continue function. Another way mega disasters desensitize us is that the smaller disasters are compared to large disasters in such a way that a threshold is set and smaller disasters are not worthy of our attention or assistance.

In the case of Guatemala, several factors contributed to the disaster. Heavy rains cut gullies down the mountains and expanded rivers beyond their banks, taking homes, people, and animals along with them. In one place we visited (Chiquimula), a large number of vultures circled over a field. A local person told us the field was full of animal corpses killed by the flood waters. While walking along the river bank through the silt and debrie in Gualan, we were cautioned to watch our step (lest we step on a person buried shallow in the silt). In both cases, the waters caused a rapid flood that swept away everything in its path.

The Lutheran Church in Guatemala started its relief work by beginning at its congregations and with church members who were affected and then reaching out to others in the community who are in need. (This also highlights how we work: working with our partners on the ground to identify both where there is need and where an impact can be made. This allows us to help people who otherwise might have fallen through the cracks.)

In Chiquimula, five Lutheran families were affect, loosing their homes in the flood. With the assistance of LCMS Worl Relief and Human Care, the Lutheran Church provided the immediate aid of temporary shelter for their five families affected by the flood. The next step is to provide aid to the other 20 families not assoicated with the Lutheran church. Ultimately, the goal is to provide some sort of a long term housing support.

After this most recent flood, the Guatemalan government has decided it is not a good idea for homes to be so close to the river. Now these displaced familie are not only homeless but also in need of finding more expensive shelter. This wise decision by the government will prevent loss of future life and property but increases the immediate hardship. This situation creates a situation where the church can step in and provide assistance in a modest way (spending 10s of thousands of dollars instead of 100s of thousands of dollars). Although the needs are more modest, designated gifts are still needed to help.

The attached photos show some of the erosion and damage from the flood. The bridge transversing the river is about to collapse (we only learned this after crossing it ourselves). A man cleans mud and debrie from his home. And a boy cleans the mud coating his toy fire engine.

These "little" disasters (if the deaths of hundreds or even thousands of people can be considered little) allows us to assist our sister church and to increase their capacity to respond in the future, while helping those in need. It also provides the opportunity for outreach into the community as the love of Christ is shown to our neighbor by caring for thr least of these.

Written on way to Quetzaltenango (many of the names are more Mayan than Spanish) while detouring and traversing sometimes washed out sections of road (see photos). Unlike in Chiquimula which had a low elevation and was very hot, today we are high in the mountains where it is cool enough to wear a light jacket.)

Rev. Albert B Collver, Ph.D.
Executive Pastoral Assistant
LCMS World Relief and Human Care

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