QUEJÁ, Guatemala – When they heard the tectonic plate break off the mountain, they were already burying their neighbors. So the people of Quejá – the lucky ones – ran out of their houses with nothing and trudged barefoot through mud the size of their children until they reached dry land.
All that remains of this village in Guatemala are her memories.
“This is where I live,” said Jorge Suc Ical, who stood on the sea of rocks and muddy rubble that buried his city. “It’s a cemetery now.”
Already crippled by the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, Central America is now facing another catastrophe: mass annihilation from two gruesome hurricanes that occurred in quick succession last month and hit the same fragile countries twice.
The storms, two of the strongest in a record season, destroyed tens of thousands of houses, wiped out infrastructure and swallowed up huge arable land.
The extent of the ruin is only beginning to be understood, but its effects are likely to spread far beyond the region in the coming years. The hurricanes affected more than five million people – at least 1.5 million of them children – and created a new class of refugees with more reasons than ever to migrate.
Rescue officials say the extent of the damage is reminiscent of Hurricane Mitch, which triggered a mass exodus from Central America to the United States more than two decades ago.
“The devastation is beyond compare,” said Adm. Craig S. Faller, the head of the US Southern Command who helped survivors of the storm. “When you think of Covid, plus the double hit of these two massive, big hurricanes in a row – there are some estimates of up to a decade just to recover.”
The relentless rain and winds of Hurricanes Eta and Iota tore down dozens of bridges and damaged more than 1,400 roads in the region, sank a Honduran airport, and turned entire cities in both countries into lagoons. From the sky, Guatemala’s northern highlands look like they’ve been scraped apart, and huge gashes mark the locations of landslides.
If the devastation sparks a new wave of immigration, it would test a new government in Biden that has promised to be more open to asylum seekers but might find it politically difficult to welcome a flood of applicants at the border.
In Guatemala and Honduras, authorities readily admit that they cannot begin to address the misery caused by the storms.
The heads of state and government of both countries last month called on the United Nations to declare Central America the region most affected by climate change. The warming sea water intensifies many storms and the warmer atmosphere makes precipitation from hurricanes more ruinous.
“Hunger, poverty and destruction do not have to wait years,” said President Alejandro Giammattei from Guatemala and called for more foreign aid. “If we don’t want hordes of Central Americans to go to countries with a better quality of life, we must build walls of prosperity in Central America.”
Mr Giammattei also called on the United States to grant the Guatemalans currently in the country what is known as temporary protection status so that they are not deported in the context of the natural disaster.
With hundreds of thousands of people still living in emergency shelters in Guatemala, the risk of the coronavirus spreading is high. Aiders have found widespread illnesses including fungal infections, gastritis and flulike diseases in remote communities hit by the twin storms.
“We face an impending health crisis,” said Sofía Letona, the director of Antigua to the Rescue, an aid group. “Not only because of Eta and Iota, but also because these communities are completely unprotected from a second wave of Covid.” ”
Equally urgent are the diseases caused by a lack of food, drinking water and shelter from prolonged rain.
“I see the youngest children are hardest hit by nutritional disorders,” said Francisco Muss, a retired general who is driving Guatemala’s recovery.
With little government support, the Guatemalans had to find creative solutions. Near the Mexican border, people crowd in handcrafted rafts to cross vast lakes created by the storms. To cross a river to the east, commuters jump into a wire basket attached to a zip line that used to be a bridge.
Francisco García swims back and forth on a muddy waterway to fetch food for his neighbors.
“I did this during Mitch,” he said, indicating the crowd of boys who had gathered to watch him on his fourth trip of the day. “You have to learn.”
Nobody knows exactly how many people died in the landslide in Quejá, although local officials put the number at around 100. The Guatemalan government canceled the search for the dead in early November.
Just a few weeks earlier, the city celebrated: The month-long curfew for coronaviruses was lifted and the championship tournament of the local football league could begin. The first round took place in Quejá, which is known for its pristine football field with natural grass. Hundreds flocked to see their favorite teams while local fans in the US watched the game live on Facebook.
“People went there for the field,” said Álvaro Pop Gue, who plays for one of Quejá’s teams in midfield. “It was wonderful.”
Now their season is interrupted and their beloved field is sinking into the water.
Reyna Cal Sis, the headmistress of the town’s elementary school, believes 19 of her students died that day, including two kindergarten teachers and a 14-year-old named Martín, who was happy to help her clean up after class.
“He had just started sprouting hair on his upper lip,” she said. “He lived with his mother and siblings near the country.”
The boulders that cover Quejá today are almost as high as the power cables. The only road into the village is surrounded by mud, so thick and wet that its residents leave holes in the shape of legs. Still, they walk on it, carrying ragged wardrobes and sacks of coffee beans on their backs, and pulling what they can out of the ruins of their houses.
People only traveled to the US a few years ago, but Ms. Cal Sis is sure there will be more to come. “They are determined now that they have lost almost everything,” she said.
Mr. Suc, 35, was having lunch with his family when the noise shook his home. “It was like exploding two bombs,” he said. He ran out and found a torrent of mud that crushed everything in sight and hurled roofs and walls through the city.
“There are houses right in front of us and they are suddenly coming towards us,” said Mr Suc. “Lots of people were trapped there.”
One of them was his niece Adriana Calel Suc, a 13-year-old with a knack for customer service that was enhanced by selling soda and snacks in her mother’s store. Mr. Suc never saw her again.
After the disaster, Mr. Suc went to Santa Elena, the nearest arid village, for four hours, pulled his grandfather with him and distributed two of his children to stronger, larger family members who lifted them above waist-deep water on the trip. But after he and other survivors spent weeks in temporary shelters, the city’s hospitality was exhausted.
On Saturday, a group of Santa Elena residents ransacked the town’s supply of food donated to Quejá’s residents. Mr. Suc is now looking for another location. He has no idea how he could make it to the US, but he’s ready to try.
“Yes, we are considering migrating,” he said, looking at the dwindling sack of corn he left behind to support his family. “Because we want to give our children bread? We have nothing.”