Fuego Volcano Eruption — The Aftermath
Since the eruption of the Fuego Volcano on Sunday, June 3, 2018, I have been watching the updates on the internet and hearing news from friends close to the front line with a profound sense of helplessness.
Hundreds of people were killed just 12 miles from our home on the steep pitch of volcanic land in a tragic natural disaster. Thousands lost their loved ones, homes and vibrant communities.
As the international coverage picked up, I saw images of the incredible outpouring of international support and experts coming to Guatemala from countries around the world. What has made me so proud is the spirit, generosity and incredible labor of the local community.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:5
Last Thursday I signed up to volunteer at the Hotel Real Plaza in La Antigua Guatemala for the 2-8pm shift. I knew many people were actively involved with helping and that my physical effort was probably not needed, but I needed to do something—for me.
The Quiroa family which owns the Real Plaza, decided to give up their beautiful, tranquil space to the movement of dynamic, energized Guatemalans and foreign visitors with a desire to help and to the many young soldiers, rescue workers and firefighters in need of a place of respite. The Real Plaza was transformed into a critical nerve center of the rescue operation. The first responders have been working 12-20 hour shifts in treacherous conditions—saving lives in the first few days and then increasingly finding precious remains to give to loved ones to bury. The volcano continues to be very active and hot with life-threatening, toxic mudslides every few hours. Between nearly day-long shifts, the rescue workers have had three-hour breaks to sleep, bathe and eat a hot meal.
At the Real Plaza, dozens of volunteers prepared delicious, healthy and filling meals in the hotel kitchen led by the top chefs of Antigua who have taken turns since Sunday preparing menus and leading the preparation of each meal. I watched as Chef Noe of the Mesón Panza Verde and Chef Christophe of Chez Christophe discussed how best to use the donations that continued to arrive. Like the story of “stone soup,” chicken and fresh tilapia was prepared in sauces with baby zucchini, carrots, onions and squash and accompanied by rice, beans and bread fresh out of the oven from El Viejo Cafe with scrambled eggs for extra protein. Freshly blended pineapple juice, coffee, and water were served to the rescue workers along with warm donuts and typical candies that made for delicious desserts. Each ingredient came from a different household, a unique Guatemalan business. Mothers and grandmothers, serving as volunteers, fussed lovingly in the kitchen about whether each dish was warm enough for the first responders who would soon arrive. Meals were carefully packed and sent to shelters and the funerals of families burying their sons and daughters.
I was struck by how young many of the soldiers were. Many hadn’t completed their 20th birthday and they were doing work that required maturity, strength, courage, stamina, and focus. Even on the rest break at the hotel, they moved between spaces with humility, focus and a sense of unity among the group. As they received their hot meals, the soldiers looked into our eyes and thanked us, sometimes with a warm smile or “Buen provecho.” With each group, we said “Thank you. Thank you.” Small moments of humor would give the rescue workers a chance to grin with each other for a split second of relief. After one of the women volunteers led a group in prayer before their meal and asked God to watch over them, their families and the thousands of people affected, they broke into applause.
Once the young men had slept for an hour or two, bathed and enjoyed their meal, they packed up their gear again and headed out to their vehicles to start their next shifts. The volunteers waved and gave them loving goodbyes. A new group of volunteers would come in, clean the sleeping areas and bathrooms from the dark sand and ask left behind, whisk the towels off to a nearby home for washing, drying and folding for the next group.
The many generations of volunteers working together were also inspiring. The Real Plaza owners told me they weren’t sure at first about converting their hotel into such an operation but their children in their 20s convinced them. Many young volunteers coordinated the inflow and outflow of donations to shelters through social media with their peers serving in Escuintla, Alotenango, and Antigua. The toothbrushes, soap, clothing, children’s shoes, water, and medicines were registered, labeled, packed and moved to where they were most needed with an unexpected professionalism and ease. All volunteers had shifts, signed in, received name tags and were assigned to tasks. A sharp first-year college student from Antigua gave me wonderful instruction on where I was needed and what to do.
The recovery and reconstruction process will be a long one for Guatemala. My sense of sadness and dread are now coupled with an understanding that this community and this country will do whatever it takes to care for our brothers and sisters who were affected. Soups will be made, towels will be washed, floors will be swept and supplies will be hauled into pick-up trucks with the spirit of “amor al prójimo” or “love one’s neighbor” that is Guatemala.