In less than 11 hours, six earthquakes struck Guatemala starting at noon local time on September 19. The southeastern area of Santa Rosa was the most affected by earthquakes that ranged from 4.5 to 5.8 magnitude on the Richter scale. The size and frequency struck the same region unexpectedly. The results: almost 5,000 people have been affected and more than 1,200 houses damaged, and encampments now dot the area after many residents lost their homes and belongings.
The government entity in charge of emergency response, Coordinadora Nacional para la Reducción de Desastres (CONRED), set up nine refuge centers for 3,500 people, confirmed spokesman David de Leon. This disaster comes after the same area was flooded in August and the River San Juan burst its banks. INSIVUMEH (Instituto Nacional de Sismología, Vulcanología, Meteorología e Hidrología) reported that August’s rainfall was 40 percent above the monthly average and in September it was still above average—by about 12 percent. The amount of rain has created massive avalanches and cut off villages with landslides killing at least four people.
But event with a state of disaster being declared in Santa Rosa, Congress has been criticized for failing to release funds to emergency response and relief services. Finance Minister Rolando del Cid Pinillos told Emisoras Unidas, the largest national radio station, that “it would be difficult to fund CONRED in the result of a disaster in Guatemala.” This bureaucratic uncertainty makes recovery even more perilious.
The government’s response was similar when Tropical Storm Agatha struck in 2010 At that time, at least 165 lives were lost and parts of the Inter-American Highway (the nation’s largest highway) were buried under landslides, making entire regions of the country unreachable. Over one year later, the recovery continues. Portions of the Inter-American are still reduced to single-lane traffic as high levels of rainfall have made repairs hazardous.
Recovery from Agatha was complicated by a shortfall of the estimated $375 million needed for rebuilding and recovery projects. But that’s no surprise for Guatemalans. According to the World Bank, Guatemala’s tax revenue as a percentage of its gross domestic product is 10.4 percent and falling, a level comparable to that of Haiti. Many residents who have little confidence in the government’s ability to fix basic services avoid paying taxes out of fear of corruption.
That raises important questions and concerns over how Guatemala will recovery from the mid-September earthquakes.
And beyond the earthquakes, for the majority of Guatemalans the poor state of local infrastructure and housing has overall increased the dangers of the six-month rainy season. A combination of fault lines, high levels of seismic activity, heavy rain and a lack of investment leaves many Guatemalans fearing that the next natural catastrophe could strike at any time with little to no national response.
Nic Wirtz is a freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years. His work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost, and he is editor for the website Vozz. He works in rural communities with NGOs such as Orgánicos La Hojita and Asociación de Tejedoras de Salud de San Juan La Laguna.