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2005 marks a record year for the number and strength of hurricanes originating in the Atlantic Ocean. Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles reports from Guatemala, a country hit particularly hard by the massive storms.
In Cua, a small farming community in the western highlands of Guatemala, what was once a neighborhood is now a graveyard. Fifty-two people died here in October when a waterlogged hillside collapsed. Tons of earth crashed down on homes and families.
ROBERTO MAZARIEGOS PEREZ (Translated):
It was like a bomb, just like a bomb, with a sudden explosion. I didn't know what was coming. I ran. And after two steps, the landslide occurred.
The devastation was caused when Hurricane Stan slammed into Central America and Southern Mexico. Rains triggered widespread flooding and landslides. Guatemala, one of the poorest nations in Latin America, was particularly hard hit.
Now, weeks after the hurricane's passage, Guatemalans confront physical and emotional devastation, smashed bridges and roads, destroyed homes and crops, neighbors and loved ones swallowed by water and earth. More than 1,500 people have been declared dead or missing.
In Cua, many people were buried alive inside a church where they had fled for shelter. Here, beneath the hardening mud, bodies are still buried. The family of Pantaleon Escalante Perez is among them.
PANTALEON ESCALANTE PEREZ (Translated):
Six children and my wife — seven all together were killed. Only one of my children survived, my 16-year-old son who came out from underneath that hole. Only one child survived. The others are all buried here.
The devastation in Cua is repeated across Guatemala's rugged western highlands, which took the brunt of the storm's damage. The government estimates half a million people have been directly affected by the disaster. Aid groups say the number is much higher. Most victims are indigenous people, chiefly Mayans who make up more than half of Guatemala's population and who struggled with desperate poverty before the hurricane. Because of damaged roads, the remoteness of affected communities and what some charge is a slow response from the government, many residents have received no official assistance. Like others, Uvilia Lopez has found shelter and help from her family.
UVILIA LOPEZ (Translated):
Thank God, my family let us live with them, but I don't know what is going to happen. I don't know what we're going to do, because there's no place to live.
Elsewhere, displaced families cling to the rhythms of ordinary life. In Santiago Atitlan, the Catholic church is providing one of a dozen temporary shelters set up around the town. The community is on the shore of one of Guatemala's most beautiful and tranquil places: Lake Atitlan.
Surrounded by towering volcanoes and mountains, the area is a crown jewel of the nation's tourism economy, but it is also a place that reflects the suffering and hardship that Guatemala's indigenous people have endured. A monument in the nearby Village of Panabaj honors the memory of 13 residents killed there by the army in 1990. They were among as many as 200,000 people, mostly Mayans, tortured and murdered by the U.S.-supported government during the country's 35-year-long civil war, which ended in 1996.
You can't meet a family without them having a brother, a father, that was somehow involved or unfortunately killed during that delicate time.
American Peace Corps volunteer Amanda Flayer has lived and taught in the area for three years. Now, she is helping Panabaj residents cope with their latest tragedy. A few hundred yards from the war memorial, slopes collapsed and smothered a neighborhood; 80 people died, nearly half of them children.
Flayer knew many of the kids killed. She says it's been remarkable seeing how so many people with so little have responded to the catastrophe.
The poorest families are bringing food, tortillas, beans. We've been amazed to see the power of the human spirit and just how well people have come together to help in this effort right now.
It's impossible to separate the disaster in Guatemala from an issue that underlies much of the country's history and politics, and that is land — who owns it and who doesn't. And here in Guatemala, as in much of the developing world, land use and poverty go hand in hand.
Many people live in very dangerous places there, and they live there because they don't have another place to live.
Roman Catholic Archbishop Alvaro Ramazzini is a well known champion of the rural poor. He says because of economic and social reasons, Guatemalans are forced to live and farm in disaster-prone areas.
In this country about the size of Tennessee, roughly 2 percent of the population owns 70 percent of the land.
In Guatemala, the ownership of the land is a big problem, and the majority of the people don't have very good land for living and growing up their produce.
The village of Piedra Grande is a case study in how poor land use resulted in tragedy. Here, death came in a shower of boulders that tore through homes like wrecking balls. Red flags mark dwellings completely buried beneath the rocks. A simple wreath honors the dead.
Government civil engineer Alejandro Salim, here to help assess damage and begin reconstruction, says poor enforcement of zoning regulations combined with rampant deforestation contributed to the destruction of this community and others.
ALEJANDRO SALIM (Translated):
We can see all the mountains. They should be full of pines, oaks and cypress trees. However, to survive, the community has cut down the trees to get firewood for heat and cooking.
But without trees holding the soil, mountain communities are vulnerable to flooding and landslides.
So there are many of problems here — deforestation, the construction of homes where they aren't supposed to be, and the lack of responsibility from all levels of government. They aren't paying attention to the situation.
Survivors here are just now taking the first small steps to pick up the pieces of their homes and lives. But survival here, as in other communities, may also depend on links to the United States.
Some of the houses in Piedra Grande were built with money sent back from family breadwinners working in the U.S., a common source of income throughout Latin America.
FIDEL LOPEZ (Translated):
This is very painful. It's so troubling because it took a lot of work to build this house, and then seeing how it looks now.
Fidel Lopez says he sent his family here hundreds of dollars a month to construct this home. After the hurricane, he returned from Los Angeles to find the house he worked three years to build largely wrecked and his wife and 14-year-old daughter dead.
Like other men in the disaster zone, Lopez says he'll take another long journey north so he can provide for what remains of his family.
Well, yes, I have to go back to be able to finish my house, to rebuild it. That's just the way it is.
Those who stay will face the challenge of finding enough to eat in the weeks and months ahead. Across the western highlands, crops of corn, beans, potatoes and other staples were severely damaged by the storm. Residents farm these crops on small plots of land to feed their families and to sell in markets.
We don't have a harvest this year. We don't have anything to eat either, because everything of the destruction of crops. Everything is gone.
Hugh Aprile of the humanitarian aid organization Catholic Relief Services says Guatemala is on the brink of another disaster.
The fact that people have lost 50 percent, 75 percent, sometimes 100 percent of their crops means that we're looking at a future food security crisis that we have to deal with now, because there is already a food security problem in the country that's simply been compounded by the disaster.
The United Nations World Food program reports that 200,000 children in Guatemala are in urgent need of immediate food aid. Authorities are distributing food and clothing, much of it provided by the international community. Repair work on shattered roads and bridges is also continuing. But housing is in short supply.
On the south shore of Lake Atitlan, workers, many made homeless by the disaster, are building 200 spartan, temporary homes. The U.S. Agency for International Development has provided material, part of a $14.5 million U.S. aid package. Diego Chulilacan, whose home was destroyed, expects to move here with his wife and six children.
DIEGO CHULILACAN (Translated):
I'm also earning money here. I'm earning money I need because we don't have anything.
But emergency aid is a short-term solution. As Guatemalans seek relief and comfort from their latest tragedy, experts and reformers say if the nation is to prevent more death and destruction in these highlands, it must address the injustices of how and where its poorest citizens struggle to survive.
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