World News

As Guatemala Volcano Stirs Anew, Survivors Wait for Word on Victims

Posted June 5, 2018 8:48 p.m. EDT

ALOTENANGO, Guatemala — First the fury of the eruption, then the waiting.

Two days after the Fuego volcano exploded in an undulating tower of ash, sending lava, rocks and gas cascading down its slopes, those who escaped waited Tuesday for news of those they could not save.

Crammed into shelters as new evacuation orders were issued, they waited to hear if the bodies of their relatives had been found — and they waited to say goodbye.

A few families held funerals for loved ones, including Juan Fernando Galindo Hurtarte, the local representative for the government’s natural disaster commission, who was overtaken by the ash as he warned residents to evacuate before the eruption.

In Alotenango’s town square, residents laid out a Mayan altar, placing flowers in a circle around a central flame. People left notes of condolence to the survivors. “Our faith has not been buried,” read one of them.

The village whose residents Galindo had been trying to save, San Miguel los Lotes, lay straight in the path of the fiery flows that tore down the hillside Sunday, crushing houses and tossing trucks.

Firefighters who reached the village Tuesday found an eerie desertlike landscape strewn with boulders. The rescuers walked single file behind a leader testing the unstable ground with a stick, their orange uniforms a jarring contrast with the pallor of the ash.

The recovery efforts were interrupted Tuesday as a new flow of molten rock coursed down the south side of the volcano.

Rescuers, police officers and journalists hurried to leave the area, The Associated Press reported.

Above it all, the volcano was shrouded in smoke and clouds.

The death toll stood at 70 on Tuesday, but officials feared it could grow much higher. Many of the recovered bodies were too badly burned to be identified.

Some asked whether the authorities had moved quickly enough to order evacuations, and whether volcano victims in villages around the mountain had been neglected. La Reunión Golf Course and Residences, a luxury resort on the volcano’s slopes, was destroyed. But unlike the villages, the resort was evacuated in time.

Karin Slowing, a former planning and budget secretary for the Guatemalan government, said an independent study would be needed to determine why the evacuation did not occur earlier.

One problem is that government corruption over the past decade has led to a deterioration of institutions.

“There is not even a census,” Slowing said. “What evacuation plans can you have when you don’t know how many communities there are, how many people there are, how many children, how many elderly people?”

Without protocols and regular drills, it is impossible to organize a swift evacuation when an eruption hits. “These aren’t things you can improvise,” she said.

Fuego is one of three active volcanoes that present a risk to the communities nearby, Slowing said, but Guatemala faces the risk of natural disaster across its territory — from earthquakes to floods — and its poorer citizens often settle in risk-prone areas.