Guatemalan and U.S. Service Members Pool Efforts after Volcano Eruption

The U.S. military and their Guatemalan counterparts work hand in hand to build houses for the victims of the Fuego Volcano.
Jennyfer Hérnandez/Diálogo | 14 August 2018

Rapid Response

U.S. service members deployed with SPMAGTF-SC work with their Guatemalan counterparts to build houses after the Fuego Volcano disaster. (Photo: Guatemalan Army)

The Guatemalan Army Corps of Engineers’ housing construction project received backing from the U.S. military. The homes will house hundreds of victims of the Fuego Volcano.

The Guatemalan government started the construction process at the end of June with the support of Latin American non-profit organization TECHO, dedicated to building emergency shelters. U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy units, deployed with the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Southern Command (SPMAGTF-SC), joined the efforts in early July.

“Our mission is twofold: First, it’s to support the Guatemalans’ efforts to construct shelters for displaced persons in the aftermath of the volcán de Fuego eruption,” said U.S. Marine Corps Captain David Andrews. “The second part of the mission is to help build partnerships with the host nation, to share resources, and to learn from each other.” 

Family transitional housing

Service members built 250 units, known as Family Transitional Housing (ATU, in Spanish), in La Industria, Escuintla department, and 46 in the municipality of Alotenango, Sacatepéquez department. Each ATU is about 20 feet wide and 40 feet long, built of wood with a roof of plastic sheeting and compartments to house four families. The Guatemalan government hoped to make ATUs available immediately upon completion.

“If the supply of materials continues as optimally as it has, and provided that there aren’t any issues, we think that the housing units will be ready by the first week of August,” said Colonel Oscar Pérez Figueroa, head of the Press Office of the Guatemalan Ministry of Defense. “Common areas, such as showers, bathrooms, and kitchens will be included.”

Combined effort

Hundreds of Guatemalan Army troops, such as the Corps of Engineers, the Second Infantry Brigade, Mariscal Zavala Military Brigade, and the Military Police Brigade took part in the construction of ATUs. With the materials supplied by the Guatemalan Ministry of Social Development and regional charitable organizations, service members prepared the land, mixed concrete, and set up walls, plumbing, and other elements.

The Guatemalan Army Corps of Engineers leads the construction project to build more than 200 temporary shelters for Fuego Volcano victims. (Photo: Guatemalan Army)

“We were the first institution, along with rescue teams, to arrive and assist the people after the eruption,” Col. Pérez said. “After that, we made all our units available for different tasks. Then we began the reconstruction phase, and one of the main jobs we do is build these shelters.”

Units of SPMAGTF-SC, consisting of marine reservists with diverse specialties, shared their knowledge of engineering, carpentry, electrical systems, and other skills. Deployed in mid-June for a six-month mission in Central America, SPMAGTF-SC carries on the U.S. military’s helping hand to their Guatemalan counterparts after the volcano disaster.

As the shelters’ construction came to conclusion, officers in charge of the project focused on the final details. “Electricity is to be set up, so we are trying to decide whether to work with solar panels or batteries,” Col. Pérez said. “Since these are temporary households, basic utilities should be simple. The same goes for drainage; in this case, we have septic tanks with extraction services.”   

It’s been hard work, interrupted from time to time by rain, but satisfactory, according to Antonio de la Roca, social director of TECHO, who mobilized 400 volunteers to build the shelters. “These people lost it all, so we decided to contribute to improve their living conditions,” De la Roca said. “We are committed to providing an urgent solution. I think we are running in record time.”

 Decent temporary housing

Fuego Volcano, located about 31 miles southeast of Guatemala City, erupted June 3rd, taking the lives of 156 people and affecting almost 2 million more. According to recent data from the Guatemalan National Coordination System for Disaster Reduction (CONRED, in Spanish), 12,800 people in communities on the volcano’s slopes were evacuated. The disaster, which shocked Guatemala, was the second most violent eruption in the history of the country.

“The last eruption of the Fuego Volcano was in 1974, and there were not as many people living there as now,” Col. Pérez said. “After the explosion there was a demographic change; now there are cliffs where there used to be mountains. This is unprecedented in the history of Guatemala, so that’s why we decided to build the shelters.”

The Office of Development for Affordable Housing at the Guatemalan Ministry of Communications, Infrastructure, and Housing assigns families to shelter units. In early August, people from San Miguel Los Lotes, Escuintla department, who suffered the worst damage, were transferred to some of the ATUs. The shelters will serve as temporary homes for nearly 12 months while authorities plan construction of permanent houses.

“Every week we conduct a meeting with the multi-sector board that monitors families’ situations,” said David De León, CONRED spokesperson. “We hope services are fully operational, as the idea is for people to have a decent place to live temporarily.”

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