Guatemala reeling from flooding, mudslides

Guatemala reeling from flooding, mudslides
The women, men and children of Guatemala live in utter poverty compared to the average American lifestyle.

The Vermillion community has, over the years, made strides in improving people's lives in that Central American country.

Much of what has been accomplished, however, is gone, wiped out in recent floods and mudslides caused by torrential rains from Hurricane Stan.

Worse is the loss of life there.

"There's a lot going on down there," Diane Nesselhuf said Monday. "The village that Sharing the Dream has worked the most with � Panab�j � is wiped out. That is where the mudslide came right down."

Hundreds of men in that Guatemalan Indian village hacked with hoes and shovels last Saturday at the river of mud about a half mile wide and as deep as 20 feet that hit their town last week, according to the New York Times.

Villagers reached for food distributed Sunday by soldiers near Puerto San Jos�, Guatemala. Some residents of the area refused help from the military, which many mistrust since the civil war that ended in 1996.

As rescue workers and relatives of the dead arrived Saturday, villagers handed out native herbs and told the visitors to press the leaves into their noses to fend off the smell of decomposing bodies.

At a jury-rigged mobile mortuary, 10 husky men in the back of a pickup truck, equipped with a few crude coffins, long nylon bags and a gallon of bleach, stood ready to haul decaying remains away, the newspaper reported.

"There is no time for funerals," said Nicol�s Pablo Tzina, the leader of the crew. "But we want to find our beloved people and bury them with dignity."

Mayor Diego Esquina of Santiago Atitl�n, the nearby municipality that oversees the village, estimated that as many as 400 people lay dead beneath the mudslide, making this one of the areas hardest hit by the rainstorms spawned last week by Hurricane Stan.

The rains, which started gently last weekend and then turned torrential, caused a trail of death and destruction from southern Mexico � where an estimated 20 people were killed, 70 rivers overran their banks, 30 bridges fell and more than 150,000 people were left homeless � to El Salvador, where an estimated 71 people died and about 65,000 were left homeless.

A local connection

Trinity Lutheran Church of Vermillion is a sister parish to El Bongo, a town of about 700 people�in the the jungle in the east central area of Guatemala.�

Diane has made several trips to Guatemala, and she and her husband, Ed, and their family of Burbank recently traveled there to help the Guatemalan people celebrate Christmas.

Other local residents have made several trips to Guatemala, doing what they can to help develop schools, clinics and orphanages.

For several months now, Sharing the Dream has been open on Vermillion's Main Street. The local business sells crafts, ranging from baskets to woven items, handmade by Guatemalan artisans.

The money raised by the sale of those crafts goes directly to the Guatemalan people, providing them new economic opportunities.

Seth Nesselhuf, Ed and Diane's son, was in Guatemala when the rains began. He is safe in Guatemala City, but has been unable to reach what remains of Panab�j.

Diane plans to leave Tuesday to join her son.

Vikki Fix and Peggy Cooper had planned to accompany Diane to dedicate a school they had helped build in Panab�j.

"I don't think the school is there any more," Diane said. "I don't think the kids are there any more. It's just devastated."

"They lost everything ?"

Panab�j is located on the southern side of a large lake. Another village, Panajachel is located on the lake's northeast side.

"The roads have been closed there because of mudslides," Diane stated in an e-mail early this week. "They, of course, got most of the tourists out but the locals have lost homes, family and businesses. We work with a group there called Maya Traditions. Jane, the founder of the group, is in San Francisco right now. This is what she writes:

"Dora, who manages the Maya Traditions office, and her sister Lorena, each had their one infant child swept away and drowned in the flood of the river. They lost everything, their home, belongings, etc.I can't imagine the pain Dora is feeling after losing her baby. I have no way to contact her," Jane states. "All of my friends are devastated and struggling to help other people.I have lost contact with most people as, in some areas, there is no electricity and the bridges and phone lines are out.

"The Panajachel sewage treatment plant was washed into the lake and it's hard to imagine what the water that everyone depends on will be like afterwards?" Jane added.

A cemetery

According to reports Diane has received from her contacts in southern Guatemala, it appears that the site of Panab�j will likely be declared a cemetery because there are so many bodies buried in mud there.

Diane spoke to a friend, Chonita, who lives in Santiago. Chonita reports that "people don't have anything and that schools and churches are crowded with with those who left their homes during the night with only the clothes on their back. "They were the lucky ones." Chonita writes. "The others didn't make it out. There are reports of hundreds of people still buried in the mud and that the one town of Panab�j would be declared a cemetery. There is a little hospital there that had just gotten going again and now is buried with five feet of mud.

A plan of action

Diane has spelled out a plan of action to help the victims of the flooding and mudslides.

"We are going to prioritize what we need to do," she stated in her e-mail written Tuesday. "I met with the Sharing the Dream board last night and two friends and I are heading to Guatemala next week. We will be meeting with a lot of people and organizations in Guatemala City and hopefully make it out to Santiago."

The victims of the flooding and mudslides are without some of the basic necessities of life. Diane hopes to make a difference by working to make sure they get food, water, medicine and clothes.

"As far as long range, there are things that must be dealt with like, water purification (now and later), relocating and rebuilding, basic household supplies (cooking utensils, plates, cups, etc). As far as clothes for the people, we want to be culturally sensitive, the people in this area wear traditional clothes and we need to see how we can help them continue with this," Diane stated.

How you can help

"This task seem insurmountable, but I think we can make a difference," Diane said. "We will start with the families that we know and that we work with in this area. Although this is a huge number of people, I think we can do it."

Individuals wishing to help monetarily may write checks to Friends of Sharing the Dream, a 501(c)3 tax exempt organization. Send the donation to: Diane Nesselhuf, 31612 471 Ave., Burbank, SD 57010. Donations are also being accepted at the Sharing the Dream store at 125 E. Main Vermillion, SD. 57069

"Please pray for our friends in Guatemala," Diane said. "I will update you as we know more."

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