Volcano eruption and tropical storm cause havoc in Guatemala

First it was lava, rocks and sand that fell from the sky, then came the rain. Guatemalans barely had time to recover from the eruption of Volcano Pacaya on the evening of the 27th May, before tropical storm Agatha, slammed into the country hours later. Overflowing rivers, collapsed bridges, roads blocked by landslides, swamped fields, homes destroyed, almost 200 people killed and tens of thousands evacuated or displaced, in just a few hours the tropical storm left its mark in 21 of the country’s 22 departments.

An MSF team was present in Guatemala City at the time, running a sexual violence project. As soon as information started to trickle out about the magnitude of the storm and its effects, Patricia Parra, Head of Mission for MSF in Guatemala, got into action. “The first priority was to contact government authorities and assess the medical and humanitarian needs,” she says. “Like in other natural disasters, getting accurate information and reaching the affected areas was a real challenge the first couple of days,” explains Patricia. The capital’s international airport was closed since the eruption of the volcano, and it remained closed for another five days. Landslides and collapsed bridges blocked roads and some communities were cut off.

The government immediately declared the state of emergency and responded by evacuating and rescuing people, turning schools and public buildings into shelters. On Tuesday 1st June, four MSF staff from other countries in the region, arrived by road from El Salvador to join the MSF staff already in the capital. Split into three teams, medical, logistics and mental health staff then spent three days exploring the affected areas, travelling by car and helicopter across the country, visiting shelters and speaking to local health authorities. The extent of the disaster has been so wide spread geographically, that it has taken all this time for the team to get a clear picture of the damage and the medical needs.

“This had never happened to me before,” weeps Micaela QUIN, one of the hundreds of people gathered in the sports hall in the town of Patulul, west of Guatemala City. This is one of the five shelters set up in the town, and most of the people here come from the neighbouring village El Triunfo, washed out by the river. “I was helping a man rescue his belongings from the river, when I saw the man got swept away and people starting shouting at me ‘Micaela, Micaela, go and see your house!’, I then saw the river had got into my house. I got out what I could, and the rest, got buried.”

MSF is working closely with the Ministry of Health and the National Coordinator for Disasters Reduction (CONRED), exchanging and sharing information on affected areas. One of the worst hit departments is Izabal, east of the country, bordering Honduras and the Atlantic coast. The river Motagua, the longest in the country, is normally three metres deep. With the storm, it quickly grew to up to 12 metres high, and up to 600 metres wide, inundating fields and homes along the way.  

Aura INES lived on one of the many banana plantations now flooded in Izabal. She has spent the last five days in a school in the town of Los Amates. “As the Motagua river grew, the plantation’s administrators told us to grab our children and leave our homes,” she explains. “Minutes later, the river flooded our home and we lost everything. Beds, furniture, electronic gadgets. We have nothing…We cannot return home now because our home is full of mud and mosquitoes. Here we are ok, they are providing us with shelter, food, water. But I don’t know when we will be able to go back home.”

Following the initial assessment, a team of six MSF staff, soon to be joined by more, have now based themselves in Izabal, where they have started to distribute hygiene kits (with toothbrushes, soap, sanitary towels, buckets…), and to provide medical care, drinking water and mental health support to people affected by the flooding.  

Cecilia GRECO, the MSF emergency coordinator leading the team in Izabal says “we are likely to find respiratory and skin infections, diarrheas, and psychosomatic symptoms like insomnia, anxiety, depression. It is still raining in this area and people are scared to return back to their homes in case the river grows again.”  
MSF has worked in Guatemala since 1986 and currently provides medical treatment and mental health support to victims of sexual violence in the main referral hospital and in clinics in the most violent districts of the capital city.