El Salvador: "We spent the whole day evacuating people."

By Tjarda Muller
In the center of Verapaz, heavy machinery was kept busy cleaning up the debris.

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On November 12, an Oxfam America humanitarian team traveled to Verapaz, where a landslide caused by torrential rain from Hurricane Ida affected half the population. Part of the team’s mission that day was to distribute 150 hygiene kits and seven water tanks.

While the team was at the mayor’s office, news arrived that two more bodies had been found—one of them, a 5-year old girl--which brought the number of dead to 16. Ten people remain missing.

“Seeing the devastation to the town caused by the enormous boulders, rivers of mud, and rubble that swept through I was surprised—and grateful—that the human cost wasn’t higher,” said one team member.

Living through the disaster was clearly a nightmare—the story of Emerita Rivas, 26, made that clear. The Oxfam team met her that day at the mayor’s office where she had been working for just two months when the disaster struck. Smiling and intelligent, she seemed already to be a crucial part of the local administration. She was meeting delegations, coordinating with the mayor and the secretary, and keeping tabs on where to send humanitarian aid.

Here is her account of the early morning hours of November 8 when the landslide hit:

“It was one in the morning and we heard a noise that sounded like heavy machinery that was getting close to us. But it was the mud and the rocks that were coming. We left quickly to knock on doors so that people would leave. Soon, we also heard the whistles, the sign that everyone had to get out. Ever since the earthquakes in 2001, people have been organized into eight sectors, and every sector has a leader.

“At around two in the morning, police cars and private cars started to arrive in order to bring people to the shelters, but there wasn’t anything there—the mats didn’t come until Monday. Thank God, the area where we live was not affected and we could help out during the emergency. We spent all day Sunday evacuating people. There were many injured people. People had to go up on the roofs or hang onto the walls, and those walls have broken glass in order to prevent robberies.

“Even though our neighborhood wasn’t affected, I am also sleeping in the shelter, because I am still afraid. Many people have suffered nervous breakdowns. One neighborhood and the town center ended up completely destroyed and the authorities have said that it’s not a good idea to rebuild the town.”