About the Author: Jay Raman is Acting Public Affairs Officer at U.S. Embassy Guatemala City in Guatemala.
Guatemala is one of the most beautiful countries in the Americas, with soaring mountains, pristine jungle, and roaring rivers. Guatemala's fertile soil produces some of the world's best coffee, cacao, and cardamom, and millions of Guatemalans are dependent on the land for their livelihoods. But this same terrain, when mixed with abundant tropical rain, can turn deadly, as the world is now seeing through reports of landslides and floods that are devastating lives and communities throughout the country.
In late May,Tropical Storm Agatha swept through Guatemala and other parts of Central America, bringing with it torrential rains that killed more than 300 people. The U.S. Government response was immediate and large-scale, and efforts to help Guatemala rebuild and recover have been our top priority in the intervening months.
Although subsequent storms have not equaled the destructive force of Agatha, heavy rains have continued almost non-stop, and soil that was already under a great deal of stress has become saturated, resulting in widespread mudslides and flooding across the country since the beginning of September. To date, there have been nearly 50 casualties, and thousands of others have been displaced or otherwise affected. In one tragic case, as rescuers were digging out victims of a bus caught in a landslide, they themselves were buried under tons of mud and rock. A number of key bridges have collapsed, further isolating many rural communities. President Colom has already declared a state of disaster, and the situation is likely to worsen in the coming days and months.
As this latest tragedy was unfolding over the Labor Day weekend, Ambassador McFarland directed the U.S. Government response, in close coordination with the Guatemalan government and Guatemala's disaster response agency, CONRED (the FEMA equivalent). The Ambassador immediately requested $50,000 in emergency funds from USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, which are being used to purchase relief supplies. USAID is providing $4.38 million in special relief funds to support communities affected by Agatha, many of which have been hit again by the latest mudslides and floods. The Department of Defense, whose helicopters were crucial in delivering relief supplies to isolated communities after Agatha, has provided an additional $30,000 for blankets, sleeping mats, mosquito nets, and GPS equipment, and U.S. Embassy-supported helicopters are flying reconnaissance and search and rescue missions to assess the damage. The Centers for Disease Control and Department of State also are making significant contributions to disaster relief efforts.
As the Acting Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy, my job is twofold: to help pass along messages from our Consular Section to the local American citizen community and to raise awareness of the U.S. Government's support of relief efforts, which we hope will increase aid from other donors and buoy the spirits of the Guatemalan people.
The U.S. Embassy's most solemn obligation is to U.S. citizens in distress. Thousands of U.S. citizens are living, working, or traveling in Guatemala at any given time, and in situations like this, the Consular Section works very hard to advise them of potential dangers. One way my section helps is to pass along messages to our community through our website, and more recently, through our Facebook page and Twitter account. Social media is a powerful tool that gives us the ability to send out important information quickly to those who need it at any time of day or night.
Social media is also an excellent way for us to communicate with the Guatemalan public. In addition to a statement of condolences, we have been providing information about the U.S. Government response to this crisis, both online and through the Guatemalan media. We aim to let those who are suffering know that the rest of the world cares about them, and that help is on the way. Hope is an extremely powerful and positive force in times of crisis.
Guatemala will survive this latest tragedy, as it has survived many challenges in the past. As a neighbor and partner, the United States is helping Guatemala on the path to recovery. Supporting Guatemala's recovery is not only the right thing to do for humanitarian reasons, but it also demonstrates our commitment to stand by Guatemala as we work together on many important issues.
If you would like to contribute to relief efforts in Guatemala, please consider a donation to an international relief organization.