Tropical Storm Agatha Takes Guatemala Town by Surprise

Guatemala bridge

A bridge was destroyed in Esquintla, Guatemala, by torrential rains from Tropical Storm Agatha. Photo by Flor Muñoz /CRS

Regional technical advisor for emergencies, Holly Inurreta, is helping with the response to the eruption of the Pacaya Volcano and the torrential rains of Tropical Storm Agatha that swept through Guatemala . The following is part of her first-hand account of a visit to the community of El Chile in Iztapa.

El Chile is nestled between mangroves and low coastal planes in the southern most part of Guatemala. The only way to get there is to float down river on barges. We had to drive our SUVs on to a barge that was nothing more than a flat panel. Our 4-wheel drive vehicle was almost as wide as the barge. We literally had only 2-feet of wood on either side of the car. Even though it was doubtful we would tip over, I rolled down the window and had my seatbelt unbuckled so I could simply swim out the window if we capsized.

Even though El Chile is a community used to dealing with floods during the rainy season, Agatha really took them by surprise. The rains start in May and run through October, but they don’t normally experience flooding until October towards the end of the season and not in May. It was also unusual because the hurricanes that generally hit Guatemala come from the Atlantic, but this was a Pacific storm. El Chile is usually the last community to get hit, and they have ample time to prepare.

The rain from Tropical Storm Agatha, however, all came within a 24-hour period. The storm formed and then hit them all in the same day. Suddenly people in the community were experiencing flooding up to their waists at three in the morning. People had to work in the dark to get their household goods up on to the rafters. So even though the water levels were lower than Hurricane Stan in 2005, they didn’t have the same amount of time to prepare, or the same amount of warning from the government. The advantage of Agatha is that the water has already receded quite a bit. People have returned to their homes, have begun cleaning up and are in the process of getting back to daily life.

One huge obstacle, however, is the loss of livestock. One landowner lost 250 head of cattle, and it’s estimated that 1,000 head of cattle were lost from the flooding. This loss of livestock, compounded by the impact that the storms have had on the fishing industry, really hurt the people who work the ranches or fish for a living.

Another challenge is that a lot of the wells were flooded and contaminated. We plan on helping people to clean out their wells. We do this by lending families pumps to drain the wells and then clean the wells with chlorine . We are also planning to provide safe water kits–a 5 gallon water container, bleach, and an eye dropper so they can measure the chlorination of the water. We are also providing water, soap, and a wash basin to promote good hand washing practices.

Because the local markets are working well, we’re hoping to give families $20 vouchers to help them replace some household items they lost—like sheets, clothing, personal hygiene items, and cleaning supplies to clear their homes of mud.

Guatemala bridge

A view from the barge that led a delegation of CRS employees to Esquintla, Guatemala, as they surveyed the damage from Tropical Storm Agatha. Photo by Flor Muñoz /CRS

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