The season’s first major tropical storm, hit Guatemala with ruthless fury last week. She came on the heals of two earthquakes and a volcanic eruption. As if those two catastrophes weren’t enough, Agatha was the third and final blow rounding out the trifecta of destruction.
The rains began on Wednesday and fell nonstop until Friday. I remember this because Friday morning was clear enough for me to get a load of laundry done, or at least I had hopes of getting it done. About 30 minutes after I hung my last pair of shorts on the line to dry the rains picked up again and I had to move my clothes under my rancho. Friday was also when I started getting phone calls from Peace Corps. First from the Duty Officer, then Ziara my project specialist, then David the Safety and Security Officer. To be honest, I didn’t know what they were all worried about. All the conversations went a little like this,
Them: “How is everything down there?”
Me: “Fine, all is pretty normal.”
Them: “How bad is the rain?”
Me: “Its been raining for a few days but nothing too out of the norm. I’m kinda enjoying it . The rain has cooled it down a bit here.”
Them: “Ok well let us know if the rain starts to cause any problems”
The exception to this dialogue was my conversation with David. He also informed me that I was being put on Standfast along with Trent, the other coastal volunteer. Being put on Standfast meant that I wasn’t able to leave my site until further notice. After this restriction was put on me I began talking with my neighbors about the storm. All of them said that the rain was typical of the season and that there really wasn’t anything to worry about. So worry I did not. Friday passed and then Saturday I got another round of phone calls. Another from Zaira, another from David and a third from Johanna, the medical nurse on duty. “What is all the fuss about?” I thought. I went along with my daily chores, then headed over to Seño Lili and Fernando’s for a lunch of caldo de mariscos (seafood soup). As soon as I made it upstairs where they had prepared the tables under their second story rancho I got another phone call from David. He informed me that the storm was getting worse and that I was being consolidated to Antigua with Trent. A driver would be out to pick me up in three to four hours. “Now this all is becoming serious”. I told my family that I was being consolidated but still had time to sit down to lunch and enjoy their delicious feast.
At about 4 PM Chepe, our Peace Corps driver, and Trent arrived at Casas Viejas. I loaded in my big backpack (I wanted to go prepared- with laptop, playing cards, books, enough clothes for a week...) and we were off. The entire trip the rain was pounding on the windshield and looking out the side windows I could see the sugar plantations begin to flood and pools of water growing rapidly over once green grazing land. Despite the bad road conditions, we were making good time. At 7:30 we were just about 45 minutes outside of Antigua when we came to our first line of red lights. We slowed to a crawl behind a seemingly endless line of cars that disappeared into the darkness in front of us. We moved at a snails pace for about 20 minutes until Chepe flagged down a driver coming the opposite direction and asked what was ahead, “No hay paso” (there is no passing) was the drivers response. We assumed there must have been a mudslide or damaged bridge ahead but it was getting to late to wait it out or investigate. Chepe decided it best if we try a different route and he hooked a Uey and we were off towards the Autopista. Another fifteen minutes passed on the new route when we hit our second round of red lights. This time we found ourselves behind six lanes of red brake lights lined up behind six toll booths with red lights above their windows. We turned on the news and found out a few big rigs had crashed on the toll road blocking all lanes. Chepe contacted the Peace Corps and it was decided that we would wait out the evenings storm in Esquintla.
We pulled up to our Peace Corps approved roach motel at about 9pm. When we got out of the car and asked the motel owner if he had suggestions of where we could go to eat he recommended his own Chinese restaurant attached to the motel. “General Pollo, muy bueno” he said in chinese accented spanish. We put our stuff down and I grubbed on my first chinese meal in 10 months. I ordered the General Pollo, (how could you not after the owner’s own endorsement) and I was not disappointed.
The next morning we walked around Esquintla a bit and found absolutely nothing of interest. We had a quick breakfast and bunkered up in our motel rooms waiting for the green light to get back on the road. Trent and I entertained ourselves with a movie I had brought. I’ll also mention here that I couldn’t have asked for a better consolidation mate. Trent and I got along really well during this whole fiasco. It was great to be around someone that was calm and looked at the experience as I did- “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. We both made the best of our situation - just chatting and going with the flow. At noon we got word from the local police that cars could pass on the Esquintla - Antigua route but that the movement was VERY slow. They weren’t lying. We got on the road immediately and waited in the same line we had been in the night before for 4 hours before we came upon the road damage. Our assumption the night before was confirmed. A river that normally ran under a bridge had overflown and covered the two lane highway with mud and debris. A John Deere was on the scene clearing a one lane path. They were allowing cars to pass 10 at a time. Ten from our side, ten from the other side. Every once in a while a sedan would get stuck in the mud and the Deere would have to go down and tow it out- slowing down the process. When it was finally our turn to pass, Chepe put our little SUV into second gear and broke threw to the other side without a problem. Getting on the other side of that mess was the best feeling ever. We were finally going to make it to Antigua. The rest of the route was ridden with minor mud/rockslides and road closures. We made it to our hostel at about 7 PM. A 7 hour trip that normally takes 1 hour.
When we arrived in Antigua we found a handful of other volunteers who were also on standfast in Antigua. We all grouped together and told stories of our personal storm experiences. I shared with them the story of my own town. Through phone calls back to Casas Viejas I had learned that the town was flooded Saturday night. Seño Lili recounted the destruction- homes flooded to their ceilings, cars completely covered by the water and livestock and chickens drowned. The school was flooded and shrimp and saltworks operations were destroyed. It was devastating but luckily no one was injured. Seño Lili told me she was glad that I got out when I did because she thought the sight of it all would have been too overwhelming for me to handle. When I asked about her home she said it wasn’t damaged and the water didn’t reach my casita either. We happen to be on the south side of the town, far away from the river that overflowed and caused all the flooding. I also learned that a main bridge along the route from my town to Esquintla was washed away in the storm. It was then impossible for me to get back to my site unless I found a new route through Guatemala city, to the border of El Salvador and back up to my town. This was a main reason for Peace Corps keeping Trent and me in Antigua.
As days went on we all learned more and more about the destruction that Agatha had caused. Roads were washed away, homes flooded, mudslides took lives and a large sink hole that seemingly opened to the middle of the earth covered a block in Guatemala city. A few of these tragedies hit close to home.
On Wednesday we found out that major landslides had devastated Ciudad Vieja and Dueñas, both towns near Antigua that Peace Corps volunteers and employees call home. Sadly, Eduardo’s, one of my Peace Corps Spanish teachers, home was completely destroyed by a mudslide that hit Ciudad Vieja. After learning about this tragedy Trent and I, along with about 10 other PCVs, went to help dig out homes in his town. When we arrived the scene was unbelievable. A mudslide had blocked up the local canal that deposits water rushing from Volcan de Agua above the city. With the canal clogged, the mud and debris still falling from the volcano’s slopes had to find another route down the mountain. The streets became the new route and mud poured into the city filling a 5 block radius. The town is on a slope so some homes had mud about waist deep throughout. Unfortunately, Eduardo's house is on the lower level of a slope and when the mud busted through the doors of his neighbor’s home above, it rushed down into his house- filling the entire first floor- leaving just the tops of doorways and windows visible above the sea of mud. Unfortunately, we were unable to begin digging out his house because there was too much mud they needed to wait for a machine or pump to help with the work. We ended up helping out at a few of his neighbors homes, shoveling mud, dragging it out to the street in buckets and wheel barrels. A tractor would sweep up the mud from the street, load it in a dump truck and it would be carried away to the local soccer field to be dumped.
Our week in Antigua wasn’t all depressing. With each new day that Peace Corps informed Trent and I that, once again, we were not able to go back to our sites, we took advantage of the time we had to explore the city. We went to see an art exhibit, watched live cuban music and climbed to la cruz to overlook the city.
Finally, I received the green light to come back to my site on Saturday - after a week of being away. Peace Corps mandated that I drive back to my site with Chepe in a PC SUV because my normal route home is still not passable. As I made my way back to Casas Viejas I realized that the damaged bridge isn’t just making my trip home more difficult but is blocking the only passage between my town and Chiquimulilla where a lot of people from my town go to school, work, shop, do their banking etc. Until that bridged is fixed, things are gonna be more difficult for people here. When I got back to site all the water had subsided but remnants of the storm were still visible. All around me were fallen trees, water damage lines on walls of homes, furniture sitting in the sun drying and cars being taken apart. I walked to the local mercadito to buy some vegetables and found three of my socios sitting on the stoop. José Angel, Don Alfonso and Don Adán. All of them had suffered damages to their homes. As we made small talk they sat solemnly with their heads down, completely void of their normally cheery disposition. Almost all of the socios in my coop were effected by the storm. Agatha couldn’t have come at a worse time. As our coop remains in debt our socios will have to shift their focus from saving the Coop to rebuilding their own lives. I still don't know how the storm will ultimately effect the town, the cooperative or my work here. As I walked out of the market I said goodbye to Don Adán and Don Alfonso, expressed regret for their loss and they said, “Gracias, seguimos adelante” (thank you, we will get through this).