About the Author: Amber Forbes serves as a Public Affairs Assistant in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.
Going two miles per hour through volcanic ash and severe rain, a small group of Pathways entrepreneurs traveled out of Guatemala City towards El Salvador on May 28. They went to Guatemala to attend the Vital Voices Summit and Pathways Workshop that took place May 25-26. Little did they know, Guatemala would be hit by two natural disasters that week and leaving Guatemala would be a difficult task.
On May 27, Volcano Pacaya erupted about 20 miles from Guatemala City, covering the capital and the international airport in ash. In addition, the onset of Tropical Depression Agatha brought severe rains and flooding. All flights through the international airport were suspended. While the majority of the Pathways entrepreneurs had already left Guatemala for their home countries, four women remained along with Marsha McLean, a Senior Consultant at the U.S. Department of State who organized the Pathways Workshop. The events that follow speak to the strength of the Women Entrepreneurs Network created by the Pathways Conference in 2009.
Adriana Fabrega, a mentor in the network, used her business connections to book a private van to take the group to El Salvador, where they could book flights home to their respective countries. The four entrepreneurs insisted that Marsha travel with them, as Marsha does not speak Spanish and the women could ensure that she return home safely. As Tropical Depression Agatha dumped buckets of rain on the van, Marsha sent a message back to Washington, saying: “We feel lucky to be moving and fortunate that our Pathways seminar for Central American entrepreneurs and the Vital Voices Summit were very successful and that the 500 women who attended are safe.”
The Pathways entrepreneurs made it home safely and escaped the worst of the storm, which made landfall in Guatemala on May 29. The eruption of Volcano Pacaya and Tropical Depression Agatha have claimed nearly 200 lives, injured an additional 100, and forced nearly 150,000 people to evacuate their homes. Flooding and mudslides have also damaged electrical, communication, and transportation infrastructure, further impeding evacuation efforts and search and rescue operations. In addition, a 100-foot sink hole swallowed an entire intersection and apartment building.
The United States has responded to the crisis caused by these natural disasters, conducting relief operations in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The majority of efforts have focused on Guatemala, the country that was hit the hardest. Throughout the crisis, the helicopters from the Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL), rescued over 150 people from flooded areas, delivered 65,000 pounds of supplies, and conducted aerial damage assessments. USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance provided $150,000 for the local purchase of emergency relief supplies, including blankets and shelter materials, for flood- and volcano-affected communities. USAID also activated a nine-person assessment team in Guatemala, including a regional advisor, a military liaison officer, and a Guatemala-based disaster risk management specialist. In addition, the Department of Defense has sent Joint Task Force-Bravo from Honduras to assist in relief efforts, whose helicopters and personnel have helped transport more than 94,000 pounds of relief supplies to six communities in need. In total, the U.S. government spent roughly $840,000 on these operations in Central America.
U.S. Embassy officials, Department of Defense personnel, USAID and Government of Guatemala officials continue to work together to monitor humanitarian conditions in affected areas. Damage assessments are underway to provide the U.S. and Guatemalan governments with a better picture of what will be needed in the rebuilding phase. See pictures of Bravo's relief efforts. The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala has posted pictures of their efforts in their Flickr stream, and INL has pictures on their Facebook page.