Survivors of volcano eruption criticize Guatemala’s disaster response

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Bryan Rivera, 22, cries as he searches for his relatives, victims of the Fuego Volcano, in the ash-covered village of San Miguel Los Lotes, in Escuintla department, about 35 km southwest of Guatemala City, on June 7, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / JOHAN ORDONEZ)

Guatemala is suspending rescue efforts in the hardest hit areas near the Volcano of Fire (Volcán de Fuego). At least 109 people are dead and nearly 200 are still missing. Some of the injured are being airlifted to the United States and Mexico for treatment at special burn units. As the shock of the disaster subsides, the government’s response is being criticized.

CGTN’s Harris Whitbeck reports.
Follow Harris Whitbeck on Twitter @harriswhitbeck

Volunteers sort tons of donated aid, package it and load it onto trucks at a private airplane hangar in Guatemala City. The trucks then drive for hours to reach shelters located near the Fuego Volcano, and the villages full of people who refuse to leave their homes but are running out of supplies.

Residents displaced by the devastating eruption of the Volcan de Fuego, or “Volcano of Fire,” receive items donated by residents from San Andres Villaseca, in Escuintla, Guatemala, Wednesday, June 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

Aid continues to reach those who need it, and families receive kits containing purified water, food and other supplies. Shelters are filled with people passing the time, waiting for word on what the future holds.

Survivors of the Volcan de Fuego or “Volcano of Fire” eruption, gather at a shelter in Alotenago, Guatemala, Thursday, June 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Days after the fiery eruption, many start demanding answers. As the immediate needs of survivors are addressed, attention begins to turn towards figuring out exactly what happened and whether the official disaster response agencies reacted in a timely manner.

The National Commission for the Reduction of Disasters, CONRED, is under fire in the Guatemalan Congress, accused of not acting upon warnings from the institution in charge of monitoring volcanic activity that a major eruption was imminent.

A group of soldiers inspects the disaster zone after the Fuego Volcano eruption in the ash-covered village of San Miguel Los Lotes, in Escuintla Department, about 35 km southwest of Guatemala City, on June 7, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / JOHAN ORDONEZ)

Survivors have said CONRED did not order evacuations in the affected villages until many of them were already engulfed in the toxic ash.

The National Meteorological Institute, also charged with observing volcanic activity, says it started sounding the alarm early Sunday morning sending out nine separate bulletins in a space of of six hours.

Residents search for relatives victims of the Fuego Volcano in the ash-covered village of San Miguel Los Lotes, in Escuintla department, about 35 km southwest of Guatemala City, on June 7, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / JOHAN ORDONEZ)

 

A woman cries after looking at her relative’s house, destroyed by the Volcan de Fuego or “Volcano of Fire” eruption, in San Miguel Los Lotes, Guatemala, Thursday, June 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Moisés Castillo)

“In all our bulletins we warned of pyroclastic flow, indicating there would be avalanches of hot gas traveling at great speeds,” said Eddie Sanchez of the National Meteorological Institute.

CONRED is defending itself, saying it followed standard protocol for this type of situation. Former director of CONRED, Alejandro Maldonado, said those protocols work well if properly followed.

The Volcan de Fuego, or “Volcano of Fire,” continues to spew ash, as seen from El Rodeo, Guatemala, Wednesday, June 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

“They are based on mathematical formulas that calculate the average of constant, permanent volcanic activity and compare it to the deviations to determine the level of alert that should be issued,” Maldonado said.

But the timing of Sunday’s evacuation orders is under scrutiny, and the country’s Foreign Ministry is also under fire. Potential private donors said Guatemalan embassies in several countries refused offers of aid.

Student stylists trim the singed hair of residents who were burned during the powerful Volcan del Fuego or Volcano of Fire eruption, at a shelter near Escuintla, Guatemala, Wednesday, June 6, 2018. On an open-air patio at Murray D. Lincoln school, several displaced people sat on plastic chairs covered by aprons as the volunteers attended to them. (AP Photo/Oliver de Ros)

 

The father of Sandra Orizabal Diaz, Pedro Orizabal, left, and an unidentified relative, console Sandra’s sister Olga, during Sandra’s burial at the cemetery in Escuintla, Guatemala, Thursday, June 7, 2018. Sandra’s body was interred in a white coffin Thursday next to the grave of her husband. All told, 18 members of the family died or disappeared in the disaster. (AP Photo/Luis Soto)

As survivors wait for word on missing relatives and pass the time in shelters, the biggest question are if this could have been prevented, and how soon a sense of normality will return.