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

Guatemala Mission reels from onslaught of volcanic eruption and tropical storm Agatha

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the June 10, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)

Right: Father David Baronti, a priest of the Spokane Diocese who has ministered in the mission in Guatemala for more than 30 years, is pictured at the top of the Pacaya volcano in 2004. The volcano erupted last month, causing long-term damage to the areas served by the mission. (IR photo courtesy of Jerry Monks)

Life in the Spokane Mission has never been easy, as readily affirmed by the natural disasters that scourged Guatemala in late May. Ash from the eruption of the Pacaya Volcano on May 26, along with heavy rainfall from Tropical Storm Agatha the next day, combined to deal a disabling blow to much of Guatemala City and the surrounding areas. Approximately 180 people lost their lives and another 100 are missing.

The Pacaya volcano, located only 15 miles from Guatemala City, expelled a mile-high column of sand and ash which spread out to over 60 miles away. The eruption closed the international airport, shut down the capital city, and caused immediate evacuations.

Rainfall from Agatha, which unloaded over three feet of water to some places during the next three days, fell on the ash and sand. The resulting slurry plugged water channels and caused extensive flooding. One three-story building in Guatemala City dropped out of sight into a sink hole with a diameter of 65 feet, and about 100 feet deep.

Damage in the mission area has arisen primarily from the deluge of rain from Agatha onto the steep hillsides on which many of the Mayan people live. Once again, the people and missionaries are forced to deal with Nature’s adversities, as they have so often in the past. But each adversity presents a new challenge.

Communications from people in the Spokane Mission area indicate that damage is both widespread and extensive, especially in some remote areas. For example, both bridges to the remote village of Tzamjuyub are washed out, so there is no longer road access to that area. (Note: In the 1990s, Fatima Parish funded the construction of a school in Tzamjuyub and Family-To-Family constructed a training center there, after helping with the construction of bridges into the area.)

Sister Immaculata Burke reports that the clinic located near the Sisters’ convent in Novillero has been flooded. Her staff was unable to get to the clinic to assess the damage because of the mud and debris that have piled up against the entrance to the area. (Note: Novillero is the location of the central clinic from which satellite clinics are served. Dedication of the clinic was featured in an IR article of Feb. 1, 1996).

Sister Reyna Isabel of the Indigenous Institute for girls, which receives assistance from Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Spokane, reports some minor erosion and damage to the retaining wall, but nothing major. Families of 5 students did lose their homes and belongings, however.

Major damage has been incurred at the trout ponds, which have been one of the Mission’s most successful projects in the past. Reports are that a huge rock tumbled down the mountainside, breaking up five of the fish ponds and causing the loss of 10,000-15,000 small trout. The bridge giving access to the trout ponds has also washed out.

More important than the physical facilities are the homes and lives of the people living in the mountains of the Highlands. Information has been difficult to obtain because so many transportation routes have suffered landslides and are washed out. However, Natalia de Leon, coordinator for Family-To-Family, reports that a team has been organized to visit families and determine immediate needs, visit projects, and evaluate damages.

The people in mission area communities, such as Old Ixtahuacán, Chui Patan, and the Chiquisis areas, have survived the heavy rains and “new communities close to the highway are okay,” according to de Leon. However, she reports that the problems are related to food and crops because most of the fields have been washed out. In her judgment, “Food will be expensive and difficult to get.”

The Guatemala Commission has undertaken special fund-raising efforts to help the Mayan people through major disasters in the past, and they may be appealing to members of the Diocese of Spokane in the future after a more complete assessment of needs of the people in the mission area.

(Jerry Monks is a member of the diocese’s Guatemala Commission.)

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