Volcano of Fire: A first responder’s view

Recovery specialist Jeannette Fernandez shares her experience in Guatemala

The eruption of Guatemala’s Fuego Volcano killed more than 100 people and disrupted the lives of more than 1 million survivors. Hundreds of people are still listed as missing. Jeannette Fernandez is a recovery specialist with UNDP’s Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction team. Following the eruption, she was deployed as a first responder to look into the possibility of carrying out a Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) and to support the Guatemalan Government and UNDP Country Office in developing a recovery plan.

Recovery specialist Jeannette Fernandez traveled to Guatemala as part of the first responder team.

What is the first thing you noticed upon landing in Guatemala?

Upon my arrival on 7 June, I was assigned to a room that had a full view of Volcán de Fuego, the one that had erupted on 3 June. From my room I could see a plume of steam and ash reaching into the sky. This lasted for the next three weeks or so.

How close were you to the volcano?

The closest I got to the volcano was when I visited the shelters which were located a few kilometres away from the two most affected municipalities, Escuintla and Alotenango. Access to areas around the volcano was not granted due to security reasons. The ground temperature was very high even three weeks after the eruption.

What is the history of volcanic eruptions and other disasters in Guatemala?

Volcán de Fuego is not the only active volcano in Guatemala. There are in fact two others that are currently active: Santiaguito and Pacaya. Both of them have had eruptions that can be traced many years back.

Yet, due to the volcanoes, as well as other hazards that affect the country (floods, landslides, hurricanes), Guatemala has emerged as one of the most prepared countries in Central America, with good legal and institutional frameworks, strong preparedness and response mechanisms. Guatemala recently updated its recovery plan, which helps institutions address and plan for better recovery, or as the country calls it, “recovery with transformation”. This means introducing changes to reduce the existing risks and vulnerabilities that exposed people in the first place — a very smart strategy and one that UNDP fully endorses in all our partner countries.

Guatemala’s Volcano of Fire is one of the most active volcanoes in Central America.

What has been the most profound thing that you have seen or experienced?

I had always thought that a volcanic eruption could be monitored and, in general, would provide enough time to inform people to leave dangerous areas. This was not the case, as I learned later, this is a very dangerous type of volcanic structure that is characterized by an open duct that allows very little time to alert the population — even though emergency drills had been carried out only months prior.

The secondary hazards created by the volcano can also become deadly in the coming months, as the rainy season will start in August. Large amounts of sand and debris have accumulated in the ravines and steep slopes of the volcano, which could produce a type of slurry composed of mud, debris and pyroclastic material.

Rescuers sprang into action after Volcán de Fuego erupted on 3 June.

What is the current situation in the affected villages?

After a difficult start, particularly with the shelters and the handling of large amounts of donations (food, water, clothes, basic utensils) received from national and international donors, national authorities are now better placed to assist communities in need. Guatemalan law requires schools to be used as shelters and, while this is a positive for those who lost their homes, many children and teenagers were out of school because their schools were being used as shelters. As we well know, disasters regularly set back development progress, whether its education, health or livelihoods.

So, the most challenging part is still to come. The government needs to prepare those communities still at risk while beginning the process of moving at least 1,000 families currently in shelters to transitional housing while they wait for permanent homes, which are expected to be ready in the next eight to twelve months.

At least 1,000 families have taken refuge in shelters.

What can be done to better prepare for volcanic eruptions?

Good monitoring systems, seismographic networks are needed in addition to other equipment that could help understand the behaviour of the volcano and support the authorities and communities to make proper use of early warning systems and respond in time.

How should the city and those affected build back better?

With a history of volcanic eruptions and other natural hazards, Guatemala has developed strong frameworks for emergency response.

With a history of volcanic eruptions and other disasters, Guatemala has developed strong frameworks for emergency response.

Guatemala is no stranger to disasters; let’s remember that Guatemala City was fully relocated after it was destroyed by a devastating earthquake in the 18th Century. We still visit the old city of Antigua, which is really beautiful.

The recovery process should be carefully designed to ensure that it reflects the needs of the population and especially how social networks and community processes would be re-established, and how social services are going to be provided and improved. The livelihoods of those impacted — many of whom relied on farmland near the volcano for food — will also need to be addressed. And, of course, recovery and reconstruction should be informed by risk when building new housing and infrastructure. It is not only the possibility of a volcanic eruption, but an earthquake, or landslides or floods that should be factored into the new settlements.

Schools have been converted into shelters for the displaced, leaving many children out of school.

Personally, what will you take away from this experience?

I still think that we can do more, we can do better. Technology and the knowledge is there, we need to communicate better so authorities and communities know the risks they are facing and how to prepare to respond and recover in a resilient manner. If we are expecting disasters as often as in a country like Guatemala, we need to establish a mechanism to support the affected population. For example, the fact that, by law, schools are used as shelters in Guatemala needs to be urgently revisited. UNDP is currently implementing a project to mainstream disaster risk reduction into land use and planning, and we hope that this will reflect both the threat of volcanoes as well as offer an alternative to shelters that does not restrict access to education.


Photos by UNDP and Conred