Noel Sampson is Programme Assistant for EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, based in the regional office for Latin America and the Caribbean. He travelled to Guatemala in the immediate aftermath of the hurricanes ETA and IOTA to assess the situation and support the response.
Sampson then went back 6 months later to monitor EU-funded projects and witness first-hand how the affected communities were doing. In this conversation, he reports on what it means to survive such a catastrophe.
What is it like for people living in isolated rural areas to go through a catastrophic hurricane, or, even worse, two of them, like it was in the case for ETA and IOTA in November 2020?
There are not enough words to describe it and only people who survived it really know.
First, you hear in the news that a major category hurricane has devastated the neighbouring country. It seems far away, but it is closer than you think. Nobody gets any alert on their cell phone: in Guatemala’s rural communities, there is hardly any network. People mostly rely on the radio.
When rain increases, you realise something is wrong. Villages in the departments of Izabal and Alta Verapaz in Guatemala, as in many other places in Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador are used to long and harsh droughts followed by very heavy rain seasons.
A hurricane is different. When it is raining way beyond normal, anxiety takes over and you start worrying about your house, family, livestock and crops.
After a few days of incessant rain, muddy water breaks into your house. Floors get soaked, water drips from the roof. It gets worse by the hour with water levels rising above your waist and covering all the furniture. Extremely strong winds blow parts of your house away. You have no other choice but leaving and try to protect your family, no matter how exhausted you are.
What happens when someone decides to leave and run for safety?
Normally people try to reach the closest place that is not flooded. In Guatemala’s Santa Anita and San Cristóbal Verapaz, the community reached the hill where the cemetery is located. People told me it was somewhat ironic that a place destined to the dead saved their lives.
The village was totally covered by water. They spent nights in the overcrowded chapel or in any other shelter that the cemetery could provide, waiting for the floods to recede. The fear of being exposed to COVID-19 makes the situation worse.
There are no emergency shelters, roads deteriorate under heavy rains and schools are far away. People were already vulnerable before the storms, relying on small portions of land for their living, usually never good enough for profitable farming. The little savings they have do not allow them to buy food nor build or rent a new house.
Despite the anxiety, when ETA’s rains winded down, many felt relieved: they had survived the most catastrophic storm that hit Central America in over 20 years. Unfortunately, it was not the end.
Another hurricane was forming. In Spanish, one would say ‘lluvia sobre mojado’ – ‘rain on wet grounds’ – how accurate is this expression?
While people were enduring ETA, hurricane IOTA was forming offshore the Atlantic coast, following the trail of destruction of ETA. The 2 hurricanes hit Central America fifteen days apart and when the second came, the soil was already saturated by previous rains.
More villages ended up completely submerged. The EU immediately allocated more than €2.85 million to humanitarian partners in the region to intervene as fast as possible. Hundreds of communities went incommunicado and reaching them was extremely challenging.
It was an unprecedented catastrophe within the last 2 decades for Central America. Around 254 people died and 205 remain missing. More than 9 million people have been affected and about 1.8 million, including 720,000 children, are still in need of humanitarian assistance.
The emergency generated by hurricanes has heavy consequences on local economy, food security, healthcare, housing, water and sanitation. Many schools have been destroyed, posing at serious risk the education of children all across Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Overall, the EU allocated more than €10 million in humanitarian response to ETA and IOTA, redirecting €7.3 million specifically to provide food to the most vulnerable in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.
You travelled to Guatemala in the aftermath of the storms, and then again 6 months later, in May 2021. What kind of situation did you find?
Many of the affected communities still look like post-war areas. Some people are back but everything has changed. The water receded but many homes are gone, or shattered.
The EU-funded assistance has been vital, helping people in the early recovery phase and covering their basic needs, but the damage remains enormous. ETA and IOTA have also generated a collective trauma.
People lost everything, a situation that increases anxiety and leads to episodes of depression, adding on the already tough coronavirus situation. The EU-funded response included also widespread psychological support to all affected communities.
The EU-funded cash assistance delivered by humanitarian partners has helped more than 8,300 families in Guatemala to buy food and medicines, but there is still a long way to go. 6 months after hurricanes ETA and IOTA devasted many villages, a new hurricane season is looming, and it has already started to rain.
Thousands of people are still homeless, traumatised and desperate. Many were displaced in their own country. However, some people now value support networks and solidarity within their own community as they were the first ones to support each other.
Many came out of this situation stronger and more resilient. They are no doubt exhausted, but they know they are not alone.