Guatemalan Service Members Respond to Volcano Disaster

Units of the Guatemalan Armed Forces deployed troops to assist during the country’s emergency.
Jennyfer Hernández/Diálogo | 7 June 2018

Rapid Response

Guatemalan Army Troops carry out search and rescue operations in the community of San Miguel Los Lotes, Escuintla, devastated by the Fuego Volcano’s eruption. (Photo: Johan Ordonez, AFP)

Hundreds of Guatemalan service members joined disaster relief efforts in the departments of Sacatepéquez, Chimaltenango, and Escuintla following the June 3rd eruption of the Fuego Volcano. Lying 50 kilometers southeast of Guatemala City, the volcano claimed the lives of 75 people, according to the latest data published on June 6th. Guatemalan authorities warned the number is likely to rise as search and rescue efforts continue.

Search and rescue operations continue in areas affected by the Fuego Volcano’s eruption, June 3, 2018. (Photo: Johan Ordonez, AFP)

More than 600 troops from the Guatemalan Armed Forces joined rescuers to respond to the emergency in the three departments under red alert. Active and reserve troops mobilized as soon as the eruption began and focused their efforts on two main areas, explained Guatemalan Army Colonel Juan Carlos De Paz Arredondo, spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense.

“The Humanitarian Rescue Unit [UHR, in Spanish] is carrying out the first effort in the disaster zone, helping rescue survivors and victims”, Col. De Paz told Diálogo. “This takes place in the community of San Miguel Los Lotes, in the department of Escuintla. Troops also deployed to rescue people in the municipality of Alotenango, Sacatepéquez.”

Deployed service members also contribute to the collection and distribution of essential supplies. According to a report from the Guatemalan National Coordination System for Disaster Reduction (CONRED, in Spanish), about 12,000 people were evacuated from communities on the slopes of the volcano. An estimated 2 million people have been affected.

“Our other role is to help distribute humanitarian aid, such as food,” Col. De Paz said. “And to monitor the shelters set up in the disaster zone.”

Violent eruption

The community of San Miguel Los Lotes and the nearby village of El Rodeo, located on the slopes of the volcano, were the hardest hit. The eruption and its pyroclastic flow—avalanches of rock and burning gases streaming down the sides of the volcano—buried both communities. The waves of destruction left behind a landscape seemingly frozen in time and covered in a dense layer of ash.

The Fuego Volcano’s eruption, the largest since 1979, began on the morning of June 3rd and continued with a second explosion in the afternoon, spewing columns of ashes that spread out over miles, unleashing rivers of lava and pyroclastic flow. The Fuego Volcano last erupted in January 2018.

The force of the Fuego Volcano’s eruption buried the community of San Miguel Los Lotes, Escuintla, Guatemala. (Johan Ordonez, AFP)

Authorities transported more than 40 wounded to the Roosevelt and San Juan de Dios hospitals in the capital, and to the Escuintla Hospital. An unknown number of people are still missing.

In addition to efforts at the two main hubs of activity, service members assisted rescuers in search and rescue missions in the communities of Los Tablones, Las Lajas, and La Reina, located on the volcano’s southern slopes. According to CONRED, communities on the north side of the mountain remained cut off as pyroclastic flow destroyed roads. Col. De Paz said troops set out for the village of Yepocapa, Escuintla, to establish contact.

“All agencies have been working relentlessly,” said Sergio Cabañas, executive secretary of CONRED. “We are doing everything humanly possible to rescue more people and, especially, assist those who lost their home and family. The Army plays a key role in rescue and food distribution efforts. Each institution has done its part in this national tragedy.”

Key military support

Units from the Army Corps of Engineers joined the emergency efforts, which included clearing the ash-covered runways at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City. The airport resumed operations on the morning of June 4th after 15 hours of clearing-work involving 10 road sweepers.

Guatemalan Air Force flights lent support to tasks on the ground. “We also did an overflight of the area to survey the disaster’s magnitude,” said Col. De Paz. “On Monday morning [June 4th], six people trapped in a sugar mill were rescued. Our personnel took them to a safe place.”

In addition to the military, firefighter and rescue squads, the National Civil Police, the Traffic Police, and members of the various organizations within the CONRED network sprang into action. In mid-April, CONRED and the Guatemalan Army staged a mock eruption of the Fuego Volcano as part of the U.S. Southern Command-sponsored 2018 Humanitarian Allied Forces (FAHUM) exercise.

“We’re putting into practice all the emergency protocols we ran through less than a month ago with U.S. Army South, which helped us improve our disaster response capabilities,” said Col. De Paz. “CONRED and other institutions participated to improve our procedures. I think we are doing well, thanks to those drills.”

The Central American and international community expressed its condolences and solidarity with the Guatemalan people. The governments of Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Israel, and the United States, among others, offered humanitarian aid and made search and rescue units available. “We haven’t turned down help from anyone,” said Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales during a press conference.

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