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"Deadly storm rocks Guatemala hours after local heads for home"
By Janae Hagen
(As printed in the June 9 issue of the Divide County Journal)
Torrential rains beat down on the plane early Thursday afternoon (May 27) as we prepared for takeoff from Guatemala City. Pacaya, one of the country’s many active volcanoes, was smoking in the distance. Once the plane took off, the 10-day service project months in the making was finally complete.
By the time our team landed in Minneapolis a few hours later, Guatemala City’s airport was closed due to a deadly eruption from Pacaya.
In the time it took me to make it back home to Crosby, all the work our team had completed in 10-days was drown out by an overwhelming need to help thousands more like those I met during my trip, which ironically ended only a few hours before Mother Nature unleashed her fury.
The rains never quit after we left.Antigua, Guatemala, was hit with 25 inches of rain in 24 hours the day after we made it back to the states.
I was part of a 15-person sociology class offered at NDSU that culminated with a service team experience through the GOD’S CHILD Project (GCP). All semester long we studied social, economic and political issues that have plagued Guatemala since their 36-year long civil war ended in 1996.
Our team spent our time working in nearly all of the facets of GCP – from visiting schools to serving at a homeless shelter to a clothing distribution in a rural area and constructing homes.
A few months before the trip, one of my teachers, Angela Mathers, began fundraising through marathon training to purchase land for the homes. The Williston native raised $6,500 – enough money to purchase three plots large enough to hold a 12 by 16 foot home.
We spent three days hauling concrete blocks, sand, gravel and sheetrock up the side of a mountain. With the building expertise and muscle power of six GCP staff, our team completed three homes on one of the most physically demanding build sites GCP has ever had.
The families our team built homes for was expected to move in Saturday; they fortunately were not on the hillside above Ciudad Vieja. We were the first ever service team to build for families from the Institute for Trafficked, Exploited and Missing Persons (ITEMP) division of the project, which meant that one or more people in the families had been in a deadly trafficking situation.
GCP social workers began working more than 18 months ago with two families who lived in Antigua’s landfills. Their livelihood revolved around finding as many recyclables in the smoldering trash as they could.
The kids were expected to help out as soon as they were old enough to run around. The 10 and 12-year old girls in one family were at a high risk of being kidnapped into prostitution.
The homes were finished less than 72 hours before Tropical Storm Agatha’s destruction. Current numbers show 156 people confirmed dead and 103 missing. Approximately 179,000 people have been displaced, more than 135,300 evacuated and 32,000 homes have been damaged.
Families living near the GCP Scheel School were devastated by the storm; the homes of 24 of the families were severely damaged or destroyed. Many of the families have shown up in a homeless shelter that is sponsored by GCP.
Classes have resumed at both of GCP’s schools to help reestablish some normalcy for the kids, said Chris Mathew, Assistant Director of GCP in Bismarck.
The 250 or so children that go to school at the Dreamer Center are the poorest of the poor around Antigua. Some are homeless and others call a dirt floor, ramshackle metal walls and a cornstalk-thatched roof “home.” The lucky ones have homes built by GCP – with a concrete floor and foundation, a roof that doesn’t leak, and a lock on the door.
Most of the children live on the countless hillsides surrounding Antigua. Unlike in the United States, the higher a family lives on a hill, the poorer they are. Rarely is water, plumbing or electricity sent that high up.
When the rains refused to cease, GCP acted as a first responder because of the staff’s extensive knowledge about rural areas. They began evacuating people whose homes were no match for a muddy slope.
Late Saturday night, a pool that had been collecting at the top of a volcano near Antigua burst and ripped through the mountainside destroying homes and picking up debris and mud along the way before inundating Ciudad Vieja in the valley. Ciudad Vieja is a city next to Antigua. My class spent most of our first day in Guatemala there admiring the Spanish-influenced architecture.
Now much of the city has been enveloped by six feet of mud. GCP staff and volunteers spent Monday digging and searching for missing persons.
“Sifting through the mud at one of the houses hit hardest…we found the bodies of a grandmother and her 11-month-old granddaughter. The mother of the baby came soon after we yelled for the bomberos (firefighters). I will never forget her wails of sorrow. The bodies were removed and the search continued,” said Megan Kadrmas, a two-year GCP volunteer, on her blog June 2.
GOD’S CHILD was founded by Patrick Atkinson, a Bismarck native, in 1991 and is headquartered out of both Bismarck and Antigua, Guatemala.
The project has an emergency relief fund and is calling for help. “We are not only facing a horrible disaster, but a lack of resources due to the material and financial assistance we provided to Haiti. We are rationing our supplies for the most needy and most affected victims. We need your help and we need it now,” Atkinson said.
Chris Mathew, the Assistant Director, said the best way to help is with financial contributions – either by mailing a check to the Bismarck office, PO Box 1843, Bismarck, 58502, or donating online at www.godschild.org.