Posted by Hannah Ziegler
My most recent facebook status postings:
Sunday 10am: Brunching with the family in STL
Monday 10am: Interviewing at KCOM in Kirksville, MO
Tuesday 10am: Waiting in the Miami airport to fly back to Guatemala
Wednesday 10am: Wading through waist deep water rescuing people from massive flooding in Xela
Wednesday 1:45pm: Accepted into Medical school, 3rd generation KCOM
The worlds greatest novelist couldn’t make this up…
Tropical Depression 12E hit Guatemala hard. It is hard to get information about it here, and I’m not sure if it was well publicized in the US or Denmark or Italy or wherever you may be at this moment.
While waiting in the airport in Miami on Tuesday (to fly back to Guatemala), I saw the rain/cloud system on the TV, but didn’t really think anything of it. Xela is way up in the mountains, away from the coast, certainly a hurricane wouldn’t cause much of a worry. Well, I was wrong.
I got into Guatemala around 1pm on Tuesday and took a taxi to the bus stop. There, I waited for a 3pm bus to take me to Xela. I didn’t get into Xela until 8:30pm (as a reference point, the same drive took me 4 hours on my way to the airport, this one took 5 1/2). There was a ton of fog and rain… so much I couldn’t see out the window. I was happy to not be responsible for driving the massive bus.
When I got into Xela, it was pouring, but I figured it was just the usual Xela rain that has bothered us day in and day out for forever. I took a taxi home, had a quick dinner, and was asleep by 10pm. I slept like a rock that night and didn’t hear a thing. When I woke up at 6am, I heard the sound of pouring rain and thought to myself, “wow, I wonder if it ever stopped?”
I got up to go to the bathroom and went to put my shoes on and realized that I was in the middle of a mini lake. I looked around and sure enough, a stream of water was falling down my wall. I put my shoes on and left my room to go tell Patti.
Turns out, she was pretty aware of the rain/effects. The roof in Jaki’s bedroom was entirely destroyed. Jaki had woken up in the middle of the night and realized that her entire bed was soaking wet. There were about 4-5 holes in the ceiling and rain was creating little waterfalls into buckets placed on the floor.
I went into Marissa’s room, and her bed was moved in order to avoid a leak in the roof. The floor in Patti and David’s room was also wet, and the hallways were flooded. In a nutshell, the rain never did stop. It just kept coming harder and harder. After helping clean up and dry up the mini newly formed lakes around the house, we settled down for breakfast.
We are spending 6 weeks doing volunteer work… At breakfast, I get a call from Erika that I should wear warm, waterproof clothing to the Bomberos (firefighters/EMTs) because they help with rescue during major storms such as this. So, I dressed in warm running tights, wool socks, my rain pants, rain boots, long sleeve shirt, sweatshirt, and raincoat. I figured I was good to go… on my walk to the station I didn’t get wet at all! I had no idea what was coming.
Aeja and I get to the station and the Bomberos tell us that we are heading to the Rotunda, where there was/is massive flooding, to help people escape from their houses. The Rotunda is in Zone 2 of Xela. It is one of the main ways to get in and out of the city. On the ride to the rotunda, we could see that the streets were flooded, but it was still possible to drive. We were told that once we arrived, there would be a person in charge that would give us assignments.
When we got to the rotunda, I could see what they meant by massive flooding. The rotunda itself was higher ground, so it wasn’t flooded and cars could pass through in two directions. But the streets surrounding the rotunda were totally underwater. It was the kind of thing you see on TV but never really feel like its real life. I wish I would have brought my camera (especially since it is waterproof) but then again, it probably wouldn’t have been too well looked upon to be taking pictures in that moment.
We stood in a long line and the boss split us into groups and gave us orders. The rain was loud and I could barely hear the guy, let alone understand what I was supposed to do. He pointed to me, and then pointed toward another group of people, so I just followed and figured I would discover my duties as we went.
A group of 6 of us including Bomberos and Aeja and I walked across the rotunda and down the street to a hotel. We couldn’t enter the hotel from the front, because the road was too flooded and dangerous, so we went around back where less water had accumulated. We climbed up to the roof and entered the hotel through the top. Inside the hotel, water covered the bottom floor, probably a good 2 feet. We rounded up all the guests and told them to take their valuables and leave the rest… they could come back for them after the storm passed. Many people didn’t want to leave, and some refused, but we got most of the visitors out of the hotel including all the young children and babies.
We helped each person climb back down the side of the wall and onto the street, and walked them to a shelter at a church located next to the Rotunda. From there, they would take a bus to a larger shelter in Zone 1 (close to where I live, an area that was not affected by the massive flooding). After we finished this task, we reported back to the boss for our next assignment.
We were put into groups of three, told to not separate from our groups under any circumstances, and sent to a street that descended into what appeared to be a slow flowing river… the water easily was up to my waist. Looking down the street, we could see people stuck in their houses… babies, children, elderly… were trying to get out of their homes and to dry land. I couldn’t help but think, “why didn’t you get out of here earlier?”
Our groups of 3 waited at the edge of the water, and we took turns going in to retrieve people. The moment that I first entered the water was a shock. It was so cold, and I could feel the current in the water. The pressure wrapped around my legs and every step just took me deeper into the water. I could feel water filling my rain boots and I had a panicking moment that my boots would fill with water and I wouldn’t be able to walk anymore. With every step forward I had to tell myself to breath. I made sure I didn’t let myself get separated from my group, and the fact that I was helping other people who didn’t have the ability to walk in the water was the only thing that kept me from turning around.
The best feeling I can relate this to is that feeling you get when you first start the swim in a triathlon (I don’t know how many people reading this can relate to that).You panic and your heart races and you can’t breath and you feel like you are so out of shape you’ll never be able to finish the race, but then you get into the swing the groove and calm down.
Except I never really did calm down. I was glad to come out of the water the first time, and every following time I had to enter the water, I got the same pressure, panicky, out of breath feeling.
As we were working, it was still pouring down rain, and the water level in the street continued to grow. Eventually, rafts were brought to help us move through the rivers of streets. Family members started coming up to us, telling us where their loved ones were and that they needed help. I remember one mother specifically, who was in tears because her 3 children and elderly mother were stuck in the house and couldn’t get out. I was not on the boat that retrieved them, but I did see the woman later, caring for her family.
Plastered on a wall was a waterproof map of Zone 2, with the streets labelled in letters and numbers. Every time there was an “assignment” the group would be shown where they were heading, and then use a boat to go to that location. It was a little complicated because we only had 3 rafts…. therefore, the work was a little slow.
I went in a raft with my team to help people trapped yet unable to call for help. We rowed down the street calling into houses and across the water, warning them that they needed to leave their houses and we were there to help them.
The water was absolutely disgusting, a thick brown, with a layer of trash on top and the shimmer of gasoline. Many times the raft got stuck on the trash and we had to move it from the boat’s path.
We came upon many houses where people refused to leave. We told them the rain was going to keep coming, the water was going to keep rising, they might run out of food, suffer from cold, but nothing convinced them. The two main reasons that people don’t want to leave, which were explained to me after the fact, is that (1) when people leave their houses, robbers come and steal valuables and (2) people don’t want to be squished into a shelter with a million other sick, cranky, crying, smelly people. Definitely understandable concerns, but I also don’t think I’d want to stay in a house where the entire first floor is completely under water, and nobody can reach you in the case of an emergency.
We eventually came upon a family that was calling out for help. We helped a baby, a young child, a mother and a father into our small raft from their second floor and rowed them back to the shelter.
At around 11:15 I was told to go inside and take a break. Once I stopped working, the cold set in and I started shivering. People handed me hot beverages and bread and at that moment, even dirty sock water (what we call Guatemalan coffee because it is so weak and sugary) tasted good. I also had a cup of mosh (oatmeal) and about 3 pieces of bread. Then it was time to go back out.
By this time, more people had come to help and there weren’t enough rafts for the number of people willing to help. This meant that we had to sit around for a while, and standing in the rain I just kept getting colder and colder. After a while, Aeja and I realized we couldn’t do any more work we were shaking so bad. We had to tell the bomberos that we needed to get into dry clothes.
The bomberos said not to worry, and they took us back to the station. I walked home, sloshing with every step. I’m sure I got some crazy looks from people on the street…. A shivering gringo walking down the street soaking wet.
When I got home I was pretty much shaking uncontrollably. It was the kind of cold where you just feel like crying because you can’t warm yourself up and you feel so pathetic and helpless. I wrung out my clothes and jumped into a hot shower, or as hot as they get here. The lucky thing is that right before I got home, the power came back on. Apparently it had been off for hours. That was pure luck!
I blow dried my hair and feet and put on many layers of warmth. Patti made me a hot cup of coffee and a cup of noodles, which seems weird but both were hot and exactly what I needed to warm up. We sat around the table in the kitchen for a little and I told everyone about what the situation was like in Zone 2, and then we watched the TV to find out more information. I was so happy to be warm and dry and safe.
But at the same time, I felt a sense of failure. It’s funny, because in my preparation for my KCOM interview, one of the questions I came across (from Student Doctor Network) was “what is the most humbling experience you have had in your life.” I struggled answering that one before the interview, and I’m glad that question never came up. But now, I definitely have the answer.
I started the morning so ready to help, prepared for anything, and I walked into the water pushing out of my mind all the fears of what could happen. But after some time, you realize you can only do so much. Even though you are helping people, you can’t change the fact that their houses and lives are torn apart, that the rain is still coming and the water is still rising.
The moment I told the Bomberos I was too cold to keep going, I was disappointed in myself. I felt like a weak woman with a petty, lame complaint that couldn’t keep going, too accustomed to her comfortable life (it was as if I were living up to the stereotype that this machismo society throws in your face). It was definitely a crushing moment, and I still wish I had stayed longer and helped more people.
But at the same time, I was relieved and glad to be on my way to warmth. It makes me see emergency responders and firefighters and police with a whole new level of respect. I have always appreciated their sacrifices, but living that experience really ingrains it into your mind.
Another amazing thing I noticed was the amount of people that came to help. Women came with large teapots (and cups) full of coffee, tea, mosh, atole (corn drink), all beverages boiling hot, with bags of bread. Every time someone came out of the water, whether an emergency responder or a rescued civilian, there was someone handing that person a hot beverage and a helping hand. People brought dry clothes and blankets to the shelter, agua pura (potable water), rafts. It was really inspiring to see everyone looking out for everyone.
Later that day, I went to the school to check my email and got the exciting news that I was accepted into KCOM. Talk about a whirlwind of emotions within one day!
The storm is still continuing, although weather reports here are really poor and don’t provide you with any specific information. All of the roads going in and out of Xela are closed due to mudslides (there are 14 mudslide locations on the highway between Guatemala and Xela). Schools are closed and the city is pretty dead, although some restaurants and bars and internet cafes are open. The rain comes and goes, at times really strong and at others just a drizzle. But the sun hasn’t come out for days. They say we should expect more rain for the next 10 days.
I’m really hoping we get to see the sun soon! And I hope the rain stops so Guatemala can rescue its land and people and get back to normal life.