In photographs of the popular tourist town of Antigua, the three surrounding volcanoes are always present. They are a distinctive part of the beautiful Guatemalan landscape. But they are also a permanent threat to local residents. The most recent eruption of the Fuego volcano buried entire villages. The tragedy is so great that there are still no exact numbers on the dead and missing.
The Fuego volcano is the most active in Guatemala. For this reason, the local Maya people called it Chi’gag, which means “Where the fire is” in Cakchiquel. Its force is such that, after the eruption of 1932, its ashes reached Honduras and El Salvador.
Near the base of the volcano are more than a dozen communities. Most of the residents are people with very low incomes who survive thanks to small-scale agriculture. Lacking better options to settle, they have built improvised homes in a high risk zone.
San Miguel Los Lotes, a village in the Escuintla Department, was one of these communities. On Sunday, June 3, the residents were awakened by thunderous noises from the volcano.
They were not surprised. Like many other Guatemalan families, they’ve learned to live with the danger all their lives. They were sure the volcano would send lava down the opposite side, to the north, as it always did. The day began with the mountain belching sand and ashes. This is not uncommon in the area, so many people simply stayed indoors.
However, around midday, things got worse. The volcano began throwing out hot stones, ash and toxic gas with such force that they reached 15 kilometers into the sky, almost twice the height of Mount Everest! The volcanic activity was so intense that NASA affirmed this was the greatest quantity of toxic gases ever traced by their satellites.
The hot sand reached a number of departments in the country but the damage elsewhere cannot be compared to that in villages like San Miguel Los Lotes and El Rodeo. Today, both are completely covered by the hot volcanic flow.
From the very first hours of the tragedy, videos of families running to escape the clouds of debris, of firemen working in search and rescue who were buried beneath the avalanches of ash and sand could be seen on social media. Despite the danger, many Guatemalan volunteers joined the search for people trapped by the sand. They were able to rescue animals, babies, children orphaned by the eruption and adults who are in hospitals struggling to survive the burns they suffered.
In other nearby towns, residents organized to open their homes and public spaces to some 3,511 victims who were left homeless. Schools and parks hosted funerals. San Miguel Los Lotes is buried and it is hoped that the village will be closed to further construction and declared a cemetery.
Four days after the eruption, the data so far indicates a colossal tragedy. Almost two million residents were affected. The sheer quantity of falling ashes clogged drainage pipes and caused flooding. In addition, the 80 fires on record will impact families whose survival and food source depends on the crops.
So far, registries show 75 people dead and 177 missing, although these numbers may increase.
The tragedy mobilized the people of Guatemala to help. Families opened their homes to those who lost theirs. Women cooked and donated meals. Young people delivered foodstuffs as well as toys for the orphaned children. However foods and medicines are still needed for communities that haven’t yet received assistance.
Fortunately, both the Novica team and artisans are well and have suffered no losses from this natural disaster. However there is much to do, especially for the families who lost everything and who must now find a new place to build their homes and get on with their lives.