Manuel Rodríguez in Tecún Umán, Guatemala
The plane left at 9.30am, headed towards Tecún Umán, starting off a day’s work in the airlift operation being run by the Guatemala Red Cross since the onset of the emergency. There have been more than 127 other airlifts prior to this one, bringing aid to those affected. Today’s load: some 4,000 pounds of supplies, food sacks filled with soup, flour, oil, grains and sugar—at total of 120 packages for distribution to those affected in this region.
As soon as we arrive, delegation volunteers start loading the truck. We head to La Independencia, a hamlet lined with African palm trees for producing oil. From the road, it looks like a tourist site, but on entering, the reality is quite different. Officials have declared this area as uninhabitable. Opposite the palm trees, La Independencia is surrounded by the Suchiate River, and is now part of it. The homes of 250 families are almost completely covered in rubble and mud that has recently dried; we can feel the ground give under our feet.
Tecún Umán is in the administrative department of San Marcos, with the Suchiate River separating it from Mexico. At the onset of the emergency, some 11 thousand persons were given shelter in 57 centres. Today, about ten shelters are still being run in this region.
The Red Cross delegation has 64 active volunteers. During the emergency, this figure rose to more than 100 volunteers, thanks to persons from the community who joined forces to help with the Red Cross tasks. Some 15 beneficiaries have since become volunteers and are helping the Red Cross’s damage assessment team and with some other of the delegation’s tasks.
As with other Red Cross delegations in Guatemala, the relief tasks here are an example of how early warning systems operate. “There were no deaths in La Independencia. Volunteers went from house to house in the streets, announcing over loudspeakers and local cable television the need to evacuate the area before the river floods,” said Néstor Paz, Disaster Coordinator. “We warned everyone and helped them to evacuate. The problem is that people wait until the last minute to leave, which is a problem for us,” Néstor added.
While we walked near what used to be the community’s school, a building now half filled with mud, Mariano Melgoza, a volunteer with 13 years of service shows us a classroom that has been destroyed; half of the roofless construction hangs dangerously over a newly formed river bank. “It will fall within a day,” Mariano said.
Víctor Barrios, with his five children and two grandchildren is one of the affected families. As we draw closer, he cries out for help; he lost everything he had. He and his family live in a shelter. He went back to his home to see what could be salvaged. “We lost everything. We don’t even have anything to eat. The problem is that there are so many of us that the food doesn’t reach us,” he says, as he points to what used to be his home, which can only be entered through the windows now. When we stand next to the house, we are higher than the roof. “We are on dry mud. This house used to be mine; now it is the river’s,” he said, his voice cracking.
From the onset of the emergency, the Red Cross in Tecún Umán has brought aid to the shelters, distributing mainly clothes and food there. Now, in addition to distributing aid to shelters, the Red Cross is also going directly to the houses that have been affected, which had previously been censused by the damage assessment and needs analysis team of the Honduran Red Cross, in support to the Guatemala Red Cross.
Wilmer Cortes and Luis Zelaya are volunteers from the Honduran Red Cross disaster intervention programme. Together with a team of local volunteers, they are in charge of the assessment. They arrived on Thursday, the 13th, in Guatemala, together with three others who are in San Marcos, and Guatemala City.
“Up to now, we have had access to eight communities. Of these, the four hardest hit are: Las Delicias, El Triunfo, La Independencia and La Montañita. We are currently assessing the situation in Tecún Umán City,” Wilmer tells us. The team estimates that some 600 families are affected, and the assessment is still ongoing.
“Here, the needs are for food, health, vector control, water and sanitation, clothes, blankets, mats, equipment for daily use (hygiene and kitchen kits and tents), according to the preliminary report of the assessment. As far as the Red Cross is concerned, logistical reinforcement is needed in the area, with transportation and technical staff,” said both Luis and Wilmer.