Sunday, November 11, 2012

Guatemala Earthquakes 1976 and 2012

This is about a personal serendipity moment that occurred this week. On November 7, 2012 a 7.4 earthquake struck in the regions of San Marcos and Quezaltenango. On February 4, 1976 an 8.1 earthquake struck in the regions east of Guatemala City at 3am while I slept in my bed on the third story of a cinder block house in the heart of that city. Now the news today has altered the power of that quake to 7.5, according to wikipedia. I still have the newspapers from that event and at the time it was reported that 30,000 people lost their lives, while today it is reported that the total was 23,000 people died.

What really matters is the lingering memories that I still carry thirty-six years later. When the shaking finally stopped, which seemed like it lasted forever, we crawled down the stairs, through the house and helped the family to reach a sister who was trapped in her room by the front door. Then we joined the mass of people who were out on the street, afraid to re-enter their still shaking homes. The following week there were over 1,000 aftershocks. Most of the homes no longer had a front wall and were openly exposed interiors. When adobe collapses it creates a pulverizing dust and that creates a thick, hardly breathable atmosphere. For the next few hours there was very little light as they skies were obscured and there was no electricity.

That first night we were two white foreign girls within a mass of Central American latins and natives. The two male missionaries who lived on the next block took us up to their house and we slept head to head in the street to avoid potential further falling adobe or other items. It was marshal law and yet people ran through the streets, often police chasing down looters. This is a country in which they shoot and ask questions later, so it was best to remain still and unnoticed. As daylight came our Mission President and his assistants came to verify that we were alive and safe.

For a young twenty one year old woman, who had never lived anywhere away from her parents before, this was an amazing experience. I had only been in the country for two months. Meanwhile my companion and the other young women missionaries in the capital were due to return home shortly. We lived on the streets for three weeks, with a lean to shelter against the masonry wall that surrounded the property across from the home we lived in. We could enter the home during the day for short time periods, but once a home was deemed not structurally safe they had to be reinforced or rebuilt before people could live in them again.

Two memories that impacted me happened to people that we knew and associated with. The first was the maid of our home, who worked seven days a week and had half a day Sunday off, at the pay of $30 a month. If the family was gone on Sunday she could have the whole day off, as we told them we would not need her. She returned home to check on her family after the earthquake and discovered that thirty of her family members died. The homes in the smaller pueblos were not built as strongly as those in the nicer neighborhoods in the city.

The second occasion involved a missionary who was killed a couple weeks after the earthquake while they were tearing down destroyed homes. It was a freak accident when he was hit by falling the adobe block above the front door. We attended his funeral, in the small village of Patzicia, that had been heavily damaged in the earthquake. Elder Choc was the son of the Branch President of Patzicia whose wife and two younger sons died in the initial quake. Fifteen people of that town were killed, and now they buried an honored son. Walking through the adobe powder we joined the funeral procession as they walked through the town. White elders and sisters, with the lovely brown skinned natives. All mourned equally and would join together in rebuilding the town.

In this same town the only LDS chapel affected by the earthquake collapsed. One missionary Randy Ellsworth was pinned by a large beam. He later was flown out of Guatemala to receive extensive treatment for injuries, but before I returned home over a year later he returned to the mission to continue serving.

After the first three weeks most of the young women missionaries were returning home to the states as they had completed their missions. The mission president sent me home to pack my bags as they were sending me to San Marcos via Quezalteango. Knowing very little Spanish, the office elders put me on a bus (think Greyhound) and I was on my way. I had previously traveled on our preparation days visiting parts of the country, but what I saw now was a very altered scenic view. The devastation was unbelievable. People were living anywhere there was open ground under make shift tents.

Once in Quezaltenangto another set of missionaries met me and I spent some time with them before boarding the bus to San Marcos (think chicken bus). I am sure I stuck out like a foreigner traveling to an area that became more rustic as we went on. In San Marcos no one was waiting for me, as they did not receive word of my coming. Somehow I made it to the Hotel where the sister missionaries lived and was allowed to wait in their room.

This was somewhat a recovery time for me from all the experiences of the earthquake and subsequent tremors. San Marcos is as close to Oregon scenery as you will find in Guatemala. The people live very quiet and simple lives. Very few had cars, using their backs or heads to carry their wares. They washed in the streams and sometimes had horses to tow their small carts. It is hard for me to imagine how the most recent earthquake, very close to the same magnitude, might alter this wonderful place. Quezaltenango, the last city where I would work before returning home, has also been highly impacted by this quake.

For a country relatively the size of Oregon they certainly face natural disasters on a much more frequent basis. Between earthquakes and volcanoes, torrential rains during the rainy season, and blaring sun when traveling in the eastern and southern portions of the country, this hearty people press forward to eak out a living. They have characters that set them apart, as they labor to provide for their families. From missionaries who have served there more recently it seems that not much has changed in thirty-six years.

My life has gone on. I have never been back to visit, which I would still love to do. Two temples have been built in this land, rich in history and with unnumbered language dialects from the different native groups. They have been through many civil wars, mostly from a Latin culture brought by early settlers. Somehow they maintain their cultural identities and beliefs, dressing in native clothing reflecting their particular group. They live simply, show compassion for each other and struggle to maintain their collective identities.

It was hard for me to leave Guatemala, almost as hard as it was for me to leave home eighteen months before. Sleeping on the streets, walking the streets in blue jeans, reaching out to offer comfort and support to those who were forced to face this catastrophe in their lives completely changed me as an individual. My prayers are for those who face this new disaster and have to rebuild their lives. For the young man who lost all of his family, please honor all of their hopes and dreams for you. You have some great examples of others within Guatemala who have walked this path before.

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