June 21, 2006

Central America Faces More Tragedy from New Rains

Mica Rosenberg

PANABAJ, Guatemala -- Homeless since a mudslide last year turned her Mayan village into a mass grave, Guatemalan widow Antonia Garcia has twice fled her plastic emergency shelter from the torrents of a new rainy season.

Cramped into shelters yards from where up to 1,400 people were buried under a collapsed mountainside last October, she and nearly 300 other families waiting for new housing fear they could meet the same fate any time the rain thunders down.

"People are scared," said Garcia. "Whenever it rains they leave the shelters and try to find somewhere to sleep. ... But we don't have any money to move anywhere else."

Panabaj and villages like it across Central America and southern Mexico are still in ruins from last year's devastating Hurricane Stan and the dirt-poor, natural disaster-prone region is not prepared for what could be another killer storm season.

This year is predicted to produce fewer named hurricanes than last year's record-breaking hurricane season.

But with yet-to-be dredged rivers that burst their banks last year swelling again and thousands of evacuees still living in danger, the region is bracing for more tragedy.

In Guatemala alone, the Central American country hardest hit by Stan, more than 3,000 families still live in temporary houses with flimsy walls, dirt floors, and communal latrines eight months after the storm.


Where the mountainside collapsed in Panabaj, on the shores of idyllic volcano-ringed tourist mecca Lake Atitlan, tops of door frames and soccer goal posts are still visible poking out of the black volcanic mud.

Government plans to build 100 permanent houses on former church land near the wreckage were scrapped after studies showed the area could well be buried again if hit by another major storm.

The unfinished cement block houses loom over what resembles a refugee camp and residents may have to wait out the entire rainy season in peril before being relocated to safer ground.

Just four hours of heavy rain on June 2 sent a raging current of water flooding through the town, forcing Juan Sosoch to flee his house with his ten children, proving authorities were gravely ill-prepared for another disaster.

"We couldn't sleep because it was raining so hard and we were afraid, so we left to sleep in the school," he said as he and his young son shoveled away mud blocking the road in front of his house.

"We can't go on living here," he said. "It's too dangerous."

Francisco Coche, local leader of Hurricane Stan survivors, said no government vehicles were in sight during the latest flooding and residents had to flee on foot or hitch rides.

"What we saw that night is that the government was ill-prepared for the evacuation," adding the threat would loom throughout the rainy season that inundates the country six months a year, he said.

A report by Guatemala's human rights ombudsman said more than 80 percent of the government's planned reconstruction projects have been left unfinished or have not even begun.


The story is repeated over and over again across an area more rain-sodden by the day, where governments claim resources are too scarce to allow adequate disaster prevention.

"We don't have money to clean out river channels or build container walls in areas commonly damaged by tropical storms," said Juan Carlos Elvir of Honduras' natural disaster commission.

The country bore the brunt of Hurricane Mitch, which killed 10,000 people in Central America in 1998 and Elvir said more than 2 million Hondurans still live in flood-prone areas.

El Salvador's government says it has only managed to borrow a fraction of the $250 million dollars it would need to properly prepare for this year's storms.

In a neighborhood partly washed away when flooding from Stan ripped the southern Mexican city of Tapachula in two, Hilce Barrios, 62, stood in her house recalling how she cleared out neck-high sand after returning from a shelter last year.

"They said they will not relocate me," she complained.

A few miles away on the bank of the Suchiate river marking the border with Guatemala, Mexican farmers watched helplessly as torrents of water from days of heavy rain tore at a banana plantation, sweeping trees downstream. Dredging out last year's debris could have helped stop the river bursting its banks.

"Nature has its four seasons already planned. The rains have to rain," said Ricardo Lemus, a spokesman for Guatemala's emergency workers, "but humans are the ones who create the disasters by failing to prepare."

(Additional reporting by Anahi Rama in Mexico, Gustavo Palencia in Honduras and Alberto Barrera in El Salvador)