Volcán De Fuego And An Inadequate Natural Disaster Response

Guatemala’s Volcano, Volcán de Fuego, erupted on June 3, 2018. It sent ash flying as far as the capital Guatemala City, which was 30 kilometres away. The death toll, reported by Latin America’s daily news on June 13, had risen to 114 people, with 150 people still missing. The emergency response of the Guatemalan state has been controversially met, with people claiming they were not warned of the risks and that the authorities failed to ‘force’ the evacuation of villages located on the slopes of the volcano.

Al Jazeera has provided first-hand accounts of people hospitalized from injuries sustained through the eruption. David Melgar, a survivor of the eruption, described as he ran from the hot ash and escaped with just burns; but he saw people being killed by large amounts of ash or being trapped in their houses as the lava came through villages, showing that people were still going about their daily lives and did not know the serious threat the volcano posed to their safety. Al Jazeera reported that whole families became trapped in their houses and recovery efforts have begun under the ground (which is still around 70 degrees). The recovery of bodies is a difficult process, but returning the villages back to their original state will take a long time. Guatemalans interviews by Channel 4 news showed anger and frustration at Guatemalan Police as they were barricaded from entering their village. One woman said: “people aren’t doing anything to help us,” showing that survivors were not receiving updated information about the damage to their villages or about the recovery efforts to find their families, causing distress and potentially dangerous situations, as those upset escaped the barricade.

Guatemala’s national disaster response is managed by CONRED, who warned people after increased volcanic activity on June 3. Ovalle, the coordinator of CONRED, stated that they “made recommendations but did not have the authority to force an evacuation.” This revealed that while CONRED is the program of state management, they did not have sufficient authority to evacuate the at-risk villagers.  It also suggests the Guatemalan people did not understand the severity and risk they posed by remaining in their homes after the volcanic activity was first recognized.

Future changes should be made to Guatemala’s national emergency response plan, firstly granting CONRED with the authority of a state institution to declare an emergency; to be allowed to force evacuations of people for their personal safety, and while this may be against their will, it would have significantly reduced the death toll if the villages had they been completely evacuated. Secondly, the people of Guatemala need to be addressed on the risks of the environment they live in and the steps taken in the event of volcanic eruptions – how they can be prepared and seek safety for themselves and their families. This could be done through community churches or organizations running emergency awareness days and children in school being taught about the land they live in.

Unfortunately, it is too late for those who lost their lives in the villages on Volcán de Fuego, but the Guatemalan people and local authorities can learn a lot from this devastation. Through a better executed National disaster plan and education for villages about volcanic eruptions, the deaths and injuries caused by such an event can be reduced in the future, keeping the people of Guatemala safer and supported.