Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Hurricane batters Guatemala mission area; medical project scrubbed

Story and photo by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the Oct. 20, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)

Massive sections of the Pan-American Highway were destroyed by slides resulting from Hurricane Stan. The highway is the main transportation route. Estimates place the death toll between 1,000-1,400 people. (IR photo)

Tropical storm rains from Hurricane Stan brought torrents of water to the Spokane mission area in Guatemala during the first week of October. What became a heavy and continuous downpour caused extensive flooding and mud slides over the next three days.

The Spokane Mission territory lies in some of the steepest mountains in Northern Guatemala. Many of the homes and villages in the area are on hillsides at the 8,000-11,000 feet elevation level. They are accessed by the Pan American Highway, which is the only paved road through the area. The highway spans the crest of the continental divide in some places, and is carved out of the sides of volcanic mountains in others.

The Spokane Diocese has supported missionary activities in the highlands for over 45 years. Support extends to parishes in Ixtahuacán, a seminary in Sololá, a radio station and school in Nahualá, and clinics in Novillero, Nahualá, Ixtahuacán, and New Ixtahuacán (Chwi Patan).

A cataract surgery project had been scheduled for Sololá for the second week of October (“Medical team heads to Guatemala for second cataract surgery project,” IR 9/8/05). The medical project was sponsored by FAF – from the Spanish for “Family to Family” – Familia a Familia, which pairs assistance from Eastern Washington families with families in the Guatemala mission territories. Three members of the pre-surgery team arrived in Guatemala just as the storm was getting underway. By the time they got to the highlands, electricity was already out and the roads were becoming inundated. They were able to get a phone message out to advise team organizers in Spokane to cancel all flights and call off the project.

Hurricane Stan brought widescale destruction in both the coastal and highlands areas. The major coastal highway was breached by floodwaters in multiple places, and the Pan American Highway through the mountains was also severed. This has brought commercial truck and bus traffic from Mexico through Central America to a standstill.

Downpours of heavy rain in the Spokane Mission areas of Nahualá, Novillero, and Sololá brought more water than the mountains and streams could contain. Homes, roads, bridges, and even whole villages were caught up in the mud slides. The road from Sololá to Panajachel was reported to have over 100 landslides. Raging currents tore out the Pan American Highway on both sides of Nahualá, isolating the village and causing concerns over limited supplies of food and fuel.

Estimates of the death toll currently range from 1,000-1,400, possibly exceeding the official U.S. death toll of 1,242 from Hurricane Katrina. Several residents were killed when landslides collapsed their home near Novillero. In Panabaj, a community along the shores of Lake Atitlan, some of a half-mile-wide mudflow approached 40 feet in depth. Over 200 people are believed to be buried in it. With body identification no longer possible, the mayor of the village has asked that the site be declared a cemetery.

Chris Halter, a Sisters of Providence Associate, lives in a village near Panajachel. Working with the National Police of Guatemala and city officials of Santa Catarina Palopo, he helped put together an emergency response team to get medicine, first aid kits, and food to 1,000 people in his village of Santa Catarina Palopo. In an e-mail he shared with other Associates, Halter described some of his experiences during the hurricane:

• Around 2 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday, Ocr. 5, the drains were over flowing and the first sign of disaster was in the making. People began screaming and running in every direction. Amadeo Tax was caught in a current of water that trapped him against a tree … (he) drowned before anyone could rescue him.

• Water was racing down the main paths of the town (by about 5:45 a.m.) and bringing with it tons of rocks and mud and many homes.

• Our neighbors’ house flooded out and the water was pushing up against the wall of the main part of the mission compound where our home is located. But fortunately our home was spared.

• Everyone was in the streets, trying to rescue lives and dig trenches so the water would continue to flow and not back up, which in the end would have caused greater disaster.

• Neil Rifenbark, our new volunteer sent to us by the Sisters of Providence, had only arrived a few days before this storm hit. Neil was of great help and assistance to me. At one point in the day, Neil tied me to a 100-foot climbing rope (which he had just brought with him) to try and dislodge some rocks that were preventing water from flowing and was causing some great flooding. I was up to almost my neck with water and mud. Suddenly some people shouted at Neil to pull me back in up to higher ground. By the time I got untied and climbed to a roof top, there was a sudden rush of water and mud that brought down a house just about 100 feet beyond where I had been working.

• A while later, a neighbor by the name of Victor, whose house had been completely flooded and had lost everything he ever owned, stood by me and asked if I would venture into the flooded area of his house to see if I could locate his entire life savings of 110 quetzales – about $14.66 US. I willingly jumped back into the muddy water that again reached close to my neck and brought back his money. We all stood there and held the money as the first of our tears were able to fall from our tired and saddened eyes.

• In all about 55 homes had been either completely destroyed or flooded out.

• Neil and I hiked to Pana-jachel in the afternoon to try and bring back a little bit of food. When we reached Panajachel, covered in mud, we were in shock to see all of the destruction that had occurred in this neighboring tourist town. The rains were still falling but not as heavy as the day before. During our hike, there were two land slides that occurred about 2 minutes before we had reached that spot on the road.

• Upon getting back to the village having brought a little food, we were able to get about 300 small bags of chips and cookies (the only food for about 300 children and adults stuck in the school shelter with no food in their stomachs).

• By Oct. 7, we opened up a working clinic near the school. Neil assisted me, as well as a Peace Corps volunteer living in our community. I saw roughly 100 patients alone this day.

By Sunday afternoon, a group of five physicians came in from Guatemala City to assist and to relieve me and the others. The major problems are fungus growing on everyone’s feet, including our own. There are a lot of stomach and intestinal problems also. Tons of minor cuts, but without any tetanus vaccines available we are going to be facing a terrible problem in the next few days and weeks.

• Last night, Oct. 9, a helicopter had brought in some medicines and supplies that had to be brought to us on a boat. This morning I delivered these meds to the local health center.

• There are no roads out of Panajachel to get more food and supplies. But we are rationing and I think we will be fine for a few more days. The stores in Pana-jachel are now empty and have no way of restocking their shelves until roads are reopened.

• Most of the south coast of Guatemala has been destroyed. There is destruction every where we look.

If you are able to pray for us and for the people here in Guatemala we certainly appreciate it. If you are able to spare a few coins it would greatly help those in need. Be assured that the money donated will go to directly assist the people of Guatemala.


Chris Halter is one of many locals who are doing what they can to alleviate the suffering caused by this storm. Dr. Jose Miguel and Sister Immaculata Burke, who minister in the clinic in Novillero, are also actively seeking medical supplies for the Spokane Mission clinics. Dr. Miguel feels the effects on the people in his area may be worse than what they suffered from Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

To help storm victims in the Spokane Mission area, make checks out to: FAF – Hurricane Relief, sent to: Family to Family, 505 W. St. Thomas More Way, Spokane, WA 99208.

Inland Register archives

Home | Bishop | Communications | Parishes | Catholic Charities

© The Catholic Diocese of Spokane. All Rights Reserved