As tropical storm Agatha dissipates over Guatemala, tremendous amounts of torrential rains are still soaking the country. The heavy rains are expected to last through Tuesday and the landslides have already begun. At this point 12 are reported dead and I fear that number will only increase as news continues to be released. Though I am safe and dry in San Cristobal de las Casas right now, vivid memories of another storm in Guatemala flooded my dreams last night.
In October of 2005 Hurricane Stan turned into a tropical depression and stalled over Lake Atitlan. The effects of that storm are still felt to this day. I was living in San Pedro La Laguna at that time on the shore of Lake Atitlan. The first few days of heavy rain were kind of a fun adventure. On about the 5th day we started to hear news about slides and possible deaths around the lake, the fun adventure was turning into something more serious. The power had gone out by then and everyone was eating up all the perishable goods before they went bad.
The owner of El Barrio pub and restaurant, Robyn, and I made meatloaf out of the frozen hamburgers and the few gringo residents and tourists that hadn’t left when the evacuation order came through had some comfort food in the chilly wet night. The next day refugees from towns around the lake were coming to San Pedro for safe haven in the churches and food kitchens were being established. San Pedro had been spared the worst of the flooding and landslides and was relatively safe. The gringo owned businesses chipped in and sent many pots of food to help with the relief efforts.
The next day October 5th we heard rumors that there were catastrophic slides and great loss of life nearby. The little Tz’utujil Maya town of Panabaj had been hit by a wall of mud and rock late in the night and many people were dead or missing. On the 6th of October the rains started letting up and early on the morning of the 7th, my birthday, San Pedro sent a rescue recovery mission to Santiago Atitlan and Panabaj with food and able-bodied diggers. I and several other travelers accompanied this mission. We loaded a ferry with relief supplies and set out on the 20 minute boat ride to Santiago. Along the way I was amazed at how much the lake had risen in one week. Docks that had been high and dry were now completely submerged.
When we arrived at Santiago things were grim. On the walk into Panabaj we passed many houses that had been destroyed, caskets were being made and filled, death was in the air. When we got to what had been the town, all that we could see was a plain filled with mud and rocks with a giant gash in the side of the mountain where death had rained down 2 nights before. The town was now 2 meters below the mud. Our job was to cut down trees to lay over the mud as bridges so we could then cross the mud and use probing rods to try and find remains of houses and bodies below. It was not well organized and chaotic as you might expect.
When in the digging we came across a body we notified people from there who would then take over for the final recovery. This was the hardest day of my life both emotionally and physically. There was no hope of finding a survivor, the mud and rocks were too deep and heavy, the damage too complete, for any hope of that. It also started to drizzle again and we were well aware that we were working directly where the next slide would come with little or no warning. This floodplain has since been reoccupied and I have great worry over the fate of the people there today as I write this, I hope the lesson was learned and they have been evacuated.
The next day I was assigned to a group that went to the town of San Marcos la Laguna to help dig out the school and Catholic church. San Marcos had received an early warning and there was very little loss of life, just destruction of rebuild-able things. After the grim day in Panabaj surrounded by death this felt more like a rescue where our actions were actually helping. The school was 4 to 5 feet deep in mud and rocks. Over the course of the day we were able to recover a large supply of powdered milk and cooking supplies and completely clear several of the rooms of mud. My spirit needed this after a day of tragedy.
On this partly sunny Sunday as I sip my coffee, my thoughts and prayers are with the people of Lake Atitlan and Guatemala.