Sunday, October 16, 2005

Stan, muddy Stan

Stan was the name of the hurrican that hit Central American recently. A few emails via the Katrinia Helpers list are posted in the comments.


Anonymous said...

jen's friend Melissa in Chiapas sent this first message:

Hi all,

Last week four Peace House folks (Simon, Rachel, Yakira, Akane) and I were trapped in Hurricane Stan in Guatemala. The devastation is unimaginable and continuing. Now that I´m back on dry land I´m astounded by the lack of information on the storm and its effects. I´m passing along an urgent fundraising plea from one of our organizational partners IMAP (Mesoamerican Institute for Permaculture) who is working on relief efforts on Lake Atitlan, and my experience trying to escape the hurricane. Updates at

All over southern Mexico and Central American thousands have lost loved ones, homes and crops. These communities may never recover.

Anonymous said...

Urgent Call for Relief: Guatemala

Dear Friends, Colleagues and Sponsors:

Surely by now you are aware of the devastating effects hurricane Stan has caused the Central American region. The Western and Central Highlands of Guatemala and the Pacific Coast were struck by relentless rains for five days, resulting in major landslides and the bursting of rivers, which swept away homes, roads, bridges and crops, leaving many communities without access to communication, basic supplies or medical attention. In the Lake Atitlán region, department of Sololá, all surrounding villages have been affected, specifically the two largest towns, Santiago Atitlán and Panajachel, with an estimated 1,500 deaths and hundreds of people missing.

We respectfully request your immediate financial support in attending to the urgent issues facing the community of Santiago Atitlán.

IMAP is an non-for-profit organization working with rural communities in the preservation of biodiversity, the establishment of food security and environmental education. We are located on the southern shore of Lake Atitlan, 10 kilometers from Santiago Atitlán. Because of current conditions, we have suspended our planned activities in order to concentrate on relief and prevention efforts in coordination with the municipality of Santiago Atitlán and other local and international non-governmental organizations.

Our concern is for the immediate needs of families who are without water, food, sanitation, medical attention and housing. Currently, an estimated one thousand people are being housed in 10 provisional shelters where the sanitary conditions pose a major health risk to the community. In light of our human resources and abilities, we have decided to concentrate our efforts in two areas: 1) securing food for at least one shelter and 2) installing water tanks and purifying equipment for at least three shelters.

To the extent possible, we will also work on sanitation issues with respect to the same three shelters, in terms of installing latrines. Donations received by IMAP will go directly towards these efforts.


Please send donations to our umbrella organization Permaculture America Latina (PAL) with 501 C-3 status.

Permacultura America Latina

723 Allendale Street

Santa Fe, NM 87505

505-989-1695 ph.

505-988-9702 fax

Anonymous said...

Walking out of Hurricane Stan

by Melissa Mundt

Last week Hurricane Stan smashed into southern Mexico and Central American.

It has recieved very little media coverage and was quickly eclipsed by crushing natural disasters in other parts of the world. This does not lessen the impact for the people whose homes, crops, roads and livelihoods have been destroyed. Relief is trickling in, but so much more is needed (Please
see announcement from IMAP, an organizational partner of the Peace House, gathering funds for the devastated communities around Lake Atitlan) . I spent last week trapped or traveling in the hurricane, through some of the most damaged areas. What follows is my account of how I escaped.

Last Monday October 3rd, I traveled to Tapachula on the coast of Chiapas to meet with immigrant rights organizations there on the border of Guatemala. It was already raining hard (but it's the rainy season) and the trip was slowed by several mud slides and a protest that blocked the highway (bus drivers demanding some sort of licensing concessions). The next day Hurricane Stan hit Veracruz, Chiapas and Guatemala, but in Tapachula the phone lines and internet had already been cut off, so I had no idea how extensive the damage would be.

I had several meetings with human rights groups, going with one group to help transport peoples possessions out of their already flooded homes. Tapachula was already severely flooded and I got around town by wading through the streets with water up to my knees.

I stayed one more night, thinking the rains would die down and that I could meet with more groups the next day.

Wednesday news trickled down that the main bridges that connected Tapachula with Mexico and Chiapas had collapsed, that the bulk of the city was severely flooded and that already they were starting to run out of food and gasoline. Time to go. However, transportation was also not running between Tapachula and Guatemala. I decided to take the risk and headed out to the nearest border crossing. It was still pouring. On the way to the border all of the towns had water up to their windows, people are standing in crowds watching the river, which had already eaten hundreds of houses, continue to swell beyond its banks.

At the border I walked through water up to my waist to get to immigration. Immigration officials had already been evacuated, one shouted at me as he hopped into his pickup truck, that I could cross the bridge into Guatemala at my own risk. Not seeing any options behind me (Tapachula, now an island, later became a site of vicious riots and looting as they ran out of food and water and no help arrived), I headed for the bridge.

The bridge was shaking with the force of the river that had consumed 4 city blocks on either side of it and was carrying away whole trees and houses. It became impassable about 5 hours after we crossed it.

At this point I fell in with a group of young Central Americans who were also crossing. It was inevitable that we began commiserating and trying to make light of the desperate situation. They were all would-be immigrants to the U.S. who for various reasons (running out of money, getting attacked by gangs, falling off the death train, getting cheated by coyotes) were headed home to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. They were ideal traveling companions, despite none of us having money (I had my ATM card, but no banks were functioning) we were all generous and supportive of each other (at one point pooling all of our money for 4 pieces of fried chicken between 5 of us, the only thing we had eaten all day) and despite me being a white woman traveling alone, they were all trustworthy and never made me uncomfortable.

Once on the Guatemala side we were informed that things were much much worse in Guatemala than they had been in Mexico (I will spend many spare moments contemplating rumors and exaggeration and the ways information travels when there is no access to outside sources) and that no transportation was leaving the border town. This would begin a long day of us following tenuous leads when the majority told us "no hay paso," there's no way through, hitching rides in the backs of trucks to the next little town in the still torrential rain.

Everywhere villages had turned into lakes. People perched on top of their houses and in trees. Cars and trucks were now merely glints of metal rooves under water. We were disappointed when we hit an obstacle we couldn't pass- another swollen river that was now going over its bridge. There was a police line keeping people away, but after they were called to a nearby landslide, the people began running over the brige anyway.

Being determined and stupid we decide to run, then we decide not to run, then we decide to run, then we decide not to run. I imagine the bridge crumbling in front of me. What would it feel like to be swept away, would there be time to realize it? We watch the people arriving on the oppisite side, terrified and muddy but triumphant, and we decide to run. There was about a foot of thick, muddy, fast moving water going over the bridge and the huge river splashed up over our heads on the left side as it collided with the side of the bridge. We arrived at the other side panting and scared and exhilerated. We chuckled nervously, knowing things very easily could have turned out differently. It was also palpable that we had crossed a line. Until then we had been doing uncomfortable but more or less reasonable things to get out of the hurricane, crossing the bridge upped the anty for things we and others did to get to safety. We hitched to two more towns before we were stopped completely- in both possible directions there were downed bridges and landslides. We stopped for the night in Mazate.

By the evening I would ring puddles of water out of the clothes that were inside my backpack, putting on to sleep the wet clothes I had put in plastic in Tapachula as they would be the driest thing around.

And that was when I succumbed to fever and a cold. We crammed into one hotel room (Mazate was relatively unflooded, just cut off from the rest of the country, so they had no hurricane shelter) that charged us $2 dollars a piece. It was crawling with cockroaches and slugs. Everything was damp, including us, but we were
content. I was now one hour from my destination, Xela, but still with no word from anyone, and no way to send word about myself.

The next day we spend the morning contemplating hair-brained schemes. We went 15 minutes out of town to see if one of the downed bridges was crossable.

The river had eaten about 30 ft of it, but desperate people had strung up a cable (about the size of a phone cord) and were swinging down over the rapids to the other side. None of us were that crazy. But later in the afternoon the boys heard of a way to get to Guatemala City (their destination) that involved several hours of walking through the woods. They head out and I stayed because I was already so close to Xela. I still don't know if they made it to Guatemala City.

Those hours in Mazate by myself were excrutiating.

Every person I talked to raising or crushing my hopes - there's a way to go to the northeast, it will take 3 weeks to clear the roads, mamacita come with me i know the way - all the creeps, ready to take advantage, coming out of the woodwork, and also all the good beautiful souls who just want to help. This is when I overhear a store clerk bragging that he got a phone call out to the US (there is still no phone or
internet service anywhere), he has some cell service that for some reason could make international calls but not local or to Mexico. I beg him to let me make a call to mom. It is obvious in her tone of voice that she has no idea that I had been practically swimming to get out of the hurricane for 3 days, and I try to get her to send a message to my board of directors and the people in Chiapas that might be wondering why they hadn't heard from me.

Back at the hotel room I have clothes strung out everywhere hoping that they'll dry a little. It is still raining, there is no water and electricity goes in and out, the town is running out of food and gasoline, and I have $5 dollars left. I fall asleep shaking with fever, thinking, I don't know how, but tomorrow I have to get out of here.

Friday morning it is raining less. I make the usual rounds asking people for new news, new ideas. It is all the same, on the road to Xela the bridge has collapsed, the tunnel has collapsed and there are
2-300 landslides (depending on how much the person you're talking to likes to exaggerate). But today a
new rumor is circulating- someone has arrived in Mazate from Xela walking 2-10 hours (depending on who you're talking to). I pack up my wet clothes and start hanging out near where the Xela bus usually
leaves from. Before long we are a group of 8ish ready to try our luck walking. We find a truck driver who says he'll take us as far as he can and we head out.

Only 20 minutes out of town we hit the first landslide. The people from that village are trying to clear it with shovels, they all tell us to turn back, but we run into people who are arriving from Xela, wet and tired but alive. It is amazing how many people try to discourage us, especially me, from crossing (I'm wearing my sandles, am the only woman, and carrying a
small backpack, more stuff than most). Some of our group is skiddish and turns back. But I fall in with a highschool kid and an older man who turn out to truly be miracles.

The first section is uphill through ankle deep mud.

My shoes fill with mud and rocks and since they haven't been dry for days the eventually rub quarter-sized bloody wounds into my feet. We reach a small bridge over another bloated river- the locals are throwing in hundreds of dead chickens that have drowned. We catch another 15 minute ride to the next landslide. I get declared the mascot of our motley crew- it is just too amusing and baffling that I'm there with them.

For the next 6 hours we walk sometimes on the abandoned highway, sometimes over enormous landslides that are 10 ft thick and blocks long, they contain whole trees and bolders, nearly cover billboards. We wade through 2 rivers that are now going over the highway. Pass a ghostly line of about 40 abandoned semi trucks still filled with rotting produce and dying livestock. Some of them up to the drivers window in mud, some half hanging off cliffs. We carefully step over a dead horse. The tunnel has not collapsed but is damaged, as we go through random
rocks fall from the ceiling. It is pitch black and eery. Many frightened people begin to run. But I take deep breaths and think (as I have many times on this trip) if it's time for a rock to smash me in the head, then there's not much I can do about it.

We reach the other side and exchange relieved glances.

We pass villages completely abandoned, all the crops under water. We cross a precarious, improvised rope bridge. We walk up and up and up. Now there are many people coming in both directions, a refugee river, whole families carrying children, furniture, food.

People going down because they have no news from loved ones on the coast. We finally get to a village that is not cut off- they give us food and water. We walk further and out of the rain comes a bus, a real bus! Guatemala buses are U.S. Blue Bird school buses, that always make me feel like I'm in elementary school.

We take 25 more minutes into Xela.

I say goodbye to my hiking companions and head into town to get a hostel. I suffer from extreme culture shock when I get to Xela, a town flooded but not destroyed by the hurricane, a town of many foriegners who relate to the hurricane as something that has
interupted their tourist plans. I am a wreck, sick and barely walking, all my possessions soaked and smelly, I seek refuge with the Guatemalans that own the cantina next door, they feed me rice and beans and I watch the first news coverage I've seen all week-

Tapachula is now a disaster, there are virtually no highways or bridges left in Guatemala, a landslide consumes an entire village of 800 people, the numbers of lost and dead continue to rise.

Now back in San Cristobal the sky is a cloudless blue.

I let the sun soak into me. It is good and strange to be back home. Everything back to normal, I guess, and that is the weird part.

There is a lot to say, a lot I am thinking about: How much we take for granted, how much suffering there is, how easy it is to feel like the end of the world is near when rains destroy one country and earthquakes destroy another, how useless "civilization" is during a disaster (financial instituations and communication systems were the first down, and any business or resturant that depends on shipping were useless), how many needs are imaginary (how I barely ate, drank
water, bathed or had dry clothes for days).

How I owe my life to people who have been kicked out of my country, how people go to my country in part because of natural disasters (migration basically began from the coast of Chiapas after Hurricane Mitch in 1998), how the risks we took and the journey we had were not that unlike the journey thousands attempt to make to the U.S. How the death toll of Hurricane Stan is just slightly more than the death toll this year on the U.S.- Mexico border.

Despite all we went through, and all they continue to struggle with, the hardest part for me to bear is that no one has even noticed. Central America is already out of the newspapers and soon the little relief that has been arriving will cease. People will be left with the impossible task of rebuilding their homes, moving beyond their grief and surviving the year now that their corn and coffee fields have been destroyed. People with already limited economic options will be left with only one- risking their lives, leaving their communities and migrating to the United States.

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Larry Joseph said...

Dear Melissa,

God bless you.

With kind regards, Larry Joseph