GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Days after a landslide buried half the community of Queja in central Guatemala, rescuers have recovered only a handful of the more than 100 people believed to be buried there.
The location is so remote and the conditions so perilous that Queja could become the latest in a string of Guatemalan disaster sites that become the final resting places of their victims.
On Monday, the Guatemalan government said a total of 44 deaths had been confirmed and 99 people were still missing in floods and landslides across the country.
President Alejandro Giammattei said he would ask the U.S. government to grant “temporary protected status” to Guatemalans living in the United States because of the damages from Tropical Storm Eta. An estimated 21,000 homes were damaged by the storm.
Eta’s torrential rains did their worst damage around midday Thursday, as residents in Queja, a farming town of about 1,200 Poqomchi Mayas, were just about to have lunch. The mountainside above them gave way, sweeping the wooden and tin-roofed down the mountain and burying them under feet of orange mud and debris.
It had been raining heavily for days as Eta, then a tropical depression, passed. Emilio Caal, a farmer who survived the slide, said 40 members of his family were missing.
It took a day just for rescuers to reach the scene because other landslides blocked highways. Supplies for survivors had to be flown in by helicopter.
Alejandro Maldonado, former director of Guatemala’s national disaster management agency, noted the country has ranked among the highest risk countries for natural disasters in the hemisphere, according to the World Risk Index.
“It is a structural problem that is linked no only the threat or the probability of producing elements like Eta, but rather other factors that make us vulnerable and are directly tied to the development of the country,” he said.
Communities don’t have the funds to invest in mitigation measures necessary to better develop their communities. Remote communities lack adequate planning, he said. Deforestation is another factor in destabilizing mountainsides.
In 2018, the Volcano of Fire in southern Guatemala erupted, killing some 201 people. Relatives said there were at least another 1,000 victims buried under debris. Officially, more than 200 are missing.
In 2015, a landslide in the Cambray neighborhood inside the capital killed 250 and left about 70 missing. That location had been declared dangerous before the slide, but local authorities allowed homes to be built there.
In 2009, in a community called Los Chorros, just six miles (10 kilometers) from Queja, a landslide covered the highway, killing more than 35 people and leaving some 20 missing. The zone lives under the constant threat of landslides.
At some point the searches are called off and the victims remain buried over relatives’ objections. Sometimes the sites are declared “sacred ground,” other times that is just the de facto result.
Authorities in Queja are deciding what to do. Landslides have continued in the area, sometimes forcing them to evacuate rescuers from the debris field.
“There is never going to be development in Guatemala nor reduction of poverty if there is not an effort to reduce the risk of disasters,” and that way save lives, Maldonado said.
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