Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Fire and Loss

I have been silent for the last month, and by now most of you know why. On Sunday, June 3rd, the volcano Fuego erupted more ferociously than it had in over 40 years, throwing this country and our lives into turmoil.

Every Sunday, we send about half our group to church, and the other half stays home to have worship and watch a teaching video. Wanda and I were at home that day when she came inside at around 12:30 pm and announced that it was raining rocks. Sure enough, small lava rocks that were about 1/8 inch in diameter were falling to the ground. And, over the next half hour, the intensity and size of those rocks increased. The largest of these were over 3/4 inches in diameter.

Meanwhile, our group in Antigua was encountering similar weather as they tried to drive home. Tiny rocks combined with an oily ash rain was falling. Eventually, due to low visibility and slick roads, they had to stop and wait it out.

We have had numerous eruptions that have resulted in ash fall over the last seven plus years, but nothing like this. Over the next two days we removed an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of rocks and ash from our two homes. But during all the previous eruptions there was no loss of life. We were soon to learn that this eruption was not like the others.

Lava flow combined with mud and was joined by pyroclastic flows (super-heated gases) that completely destroyed the community of Los Lotes and the majority of El Rodeo. Six people were killed in the nearby town of Alotenango. A major route to the department of Esquintla was covered in lava, and chaos ensued.

The official count is over 110 people dead and around 200 people missing. But most, including myself, do not believe these numbers to be correct. The total population of Los Lotes and El Rodeo was over 26,000. In spite of repeated warnings from the the National Seismic and Volcanic Institute that informed CONRED that they needed to evacuate, they did not begin until shortly before the eruption. For almost six hours they waited, choosing only to evacuate a wealth country club, but leaving the villages in place until only moments before the volcano blew. And those below were killed by the pyroclastic flow and covered by lava and ash. This eruption was very similar to Pompeii.

Recently they called off the recovery effort. They have led us to believe that only about 200 are left buried. But many believe the number is actually in the thousands.

On Monday morning, we loaded up the ambulance with medicine, medical supplies, and water and headed to Escuintla. Taryn, Jeremiah, Kevin, Katie, and Stephanie joined me. What was previously about a 50 minute drive is now over 2 hours, as a portion of route 14 is now covered by lava.

We went first to an emergency shelter and were sent from there to the main health center. We had a conversation with the doctor who was heading up the medical care, and he told us we were not allowed to go into the affected area. He explained that it was too dangerous. I watched with pride as my 17 year old son and 19 year old daughter explained to him that we knew the risks, but were willing to take them. Taryn told him, “If we die, we die. Our lives are in God’s hands.” Finally he shook his head and had us write down our names and phone numbers and told us we could go.

We took the back way in, driving through several rivers. When we were several miles deep in the back road, we were waved down by a lady in another vehicle. She told us about two villages up on the side of the mountain that were without electricity and water, and wanted to know if we could help. At this point, we had been told that we could not get into El Rodeo, so we decided to drive up the mountain to find them.
We arrived to find that we were not dealing with two small villages, but instead around 7,500 people. Their power was out, they had no water flowing, and they were collecting rain water. But the rain water was filled with ash, making it dangerous to drink. We were told that people were coughing due to the ash and that they needed water badly. Needless to say, we all felt overwhelmed.

Before we knew what was happening, a pastor had drug out a battery powered speaker and microphone and a crowd of several hundred had gathered around us. A microphone was shoved in my hand, and I was asked to address the crowd. I told them that we had some medicine and masks that we could distribute to the elderly. I told them that we would come back the next day and bring some water filters. And I told them we would pray for them. And we did.

As we left, I was calculating in my head. I had about 10 water filters, and I was figuring flow rate and how many people 10 filters could serve. And I came up far short of what we needed for 7,500 people. So, I prayed. And here is what happened...

Before I was off the mountain I had received a call from my friend, Brian Spence. He and his wife, April, had talked to their friend who owns the Ecofilter company and arranged a discount. They also had enough donations to purchase 100 Ecofilters, and had arranged with their friends, Paul and Bethany Hardison and Matt and Michelle Tumas, to provide trucks to carry them all in along with drinking water. So, plans were made to head back in the next day.

The next day, we decided to go in the front way. In order to do so, we needed to clear through two road blocks that had been set up and then drive through El Rodea. But when I explained what we were doing, they cleared us through. Right after we passed through the town, they shut the road down and evacuated the rest of the town because of additional eruptions that were expected.

We made it safely up the mountain and, as we were pulling into El Ceylan, we met a large truck leaving from CONRED. I waved them down and asked them if help was on the way to those communities. But they had actually only been there to warn the town of additional eruptions. So, when we arrived, we found a town full of terrified people who had been told that pyroclastic flows could come their way. (Please don’t ask me what benefit it was to tell them this, when CONRED had no plans or means to evacuate them.)

Over the next hour or so, a large crowd gathered around as we distributed 75 water filters and set them up as filtering stations in the town. Each church, the school, and the health center received five filters so that families could come and filter rain water. When we were done, the rest of the group headed back down the mountain, but our team from Ministerio de Esperanza hung around and visited for a while. While we recognized the danger of additional eruptions (there was another eruption while we were on the mountain) we also recognized the fear in the people. I kept wondering how I would have felt if I lived in that community and saw gringos coming to help but then fleeing quickly. How would I feel, knowing that I had no way to run and no place which to run?

So we visited for a while, distributing more medicines. We prayed with some people, and took photos with them. And when we left, there were smiles and laughter. Children lined up and waved as we pulled out of town.

We had been alerted that our way onto the mountain had been shut down while we were distributing filters, so we drove down and took the back way out, crossing three rivers as the rain began to fall. Unbeknownst to us, right after we crossed one of the rivers there was a flow of heated gas and mud that came through behind us, making the road impassable. We are thankful that we were not trapped on the mountain, and we are even more thankful that we were not caught in the river when the flow came.

Around that time, donations were flowing into the shelters from both Guatemalans and from international aid. When we visited the shelters, we saw mountains of bottled water, food, clothing and medicine. Meanwhile, we were hearing contradicting reports regarding needs. For example, some were saying that the shelters were needing medicine. Others were saying that they had more medicine than they could use.

At the same time, people began to see the relief work we were doing, and Hope for Home Ministries began receiving donations to help. Over $10,000 arrived in just a few days. And other missionaries began contacting me because they were receiving donations to help as well. They wanted my guidance because they did not know the best use for those gifts. In a two day period I received over 150 messages asking for guidance on how to use donations. So, I was working furiously to get solid answers.

We visited one of the largest shelters and spoke with a friend who is a doctor working in the shelters. We visited the distribution center for donations and went through the medicines to see what they had. We spoke with everyone who would speak to us, and a picture and plan began to form.

The shelters had plenty of food and clothing. And they had lots of medicine, but not all the right kinds. And we also began to see the other needs that people were overlooking. So, here is our current course of action regarding volcano relief:
  1. We are working with my doctor friend who is serving in the shelter to provide specific meds and supplies that are not being donated.
  2. Through that same doctor, we have provided dental supplies so that those in shelters can receive dental care.
  3. And, again, through that doctor we are providing medical imaging and lab work to those in the shelter as it is needed.
  4. We are working with health centers and nurses in communities affected by the volcano, but not evacuated, to provide medicine and supplies that are needed. These include antibiotics for respiratory and intestinal infections that have been caused by the ash.
  5. We are focusing on using these resources carefully, hoping to be able to help with rebuilding of homes when that begins.

In the midst of this chaos, I received the heartbreaking news that my dear friends, Guy and Amy Fraley, had lost their six year old son, Xander, very suddenly. The Fraley family has fostered and adopted several children with special needs and have opened their home and hearts to some very fragile children. They have a son, James, who has been very sick for quite a while, and he was in the ICU in Dayton at this time. But Xander went into respiratory distress at home very suddenly, and they were unable to save him. This family shares our heart, so when Guy asked me to come and officiate the service for Xander, I immediately said yes.

So, exactly one week after the eruption, Wanda and I found ourselves on a plane to the US. At this point I was dangerously sleep deprived and struggling to focus on simple tasks. So, when we arrived at our friends home after midnight, I fell into a coma-like sleep. (This is a special thank you to Jeff and Donna Kephart, who hosted us in their beautiful Oasis of a basement! You have no idea how badly we needed that refuge!)

Our time with the Fraley family was a sweet time of healing. It is always good to be around people who understand, and Wanda and I understand very well the pain and trauma of losing a child. At the same time, after the trauma of the past week we had experienced, it was good to be with our friends. I believe it was a healing time for all of us.

The memorial service for Xander was beautiful and gave glory to Jesus. Many lives were touched by his story. And, even as we grieved our loss, we celebrated his gain. As I looked at Xander’s wheelchair and braces at the front of the church, I wept tears of joy. Xander no longer needs them, and is running free!

We returned home to Guatemala on Friday evening and got right back to work. And the work continues.

In addition to our volcano relief work, our ministry continues to stay very busy. Here are just a few things that have happened:
Birthing Center - Escuintla
  1. We welcomed Emanuel Alvarez and his daughter, Millie, to Guatemala. His wife, Shannon, and other four children will join us in the next two weeks. They will be providing support to our group homes in preparation of opening our third group home soon.
  2. We added another Toyota Hilux pick-up truck to our rural village ministry fleet. Our Mitsubishi truck just has not been able to handle the abuse of the roads we drive, and was spending way too much time in the shop. So, it was time to replace it with something more durable.
  3. We received another child into our home. Little Ana came to us from another home yesterday. She is not quite three months old, and has a seizure disorder. But we quickly realized that she also has cerebral palsy and is not responding to stimuli as you would expect. We are not sure if this is due to congenital brain damage or due to severe abuse she experienced. But we are working hard to get her all the help available.
  4. Our birthing center is nearing completion. Meanwhile, Stephanie and Taryn have a growing prenatal care ministry in the area, as they have been invited by two other health centers to do prenatal exams in their towns.
  5. And there is lots more happening, but this post is already too long.

Please pray for the people of Guatemala as they continue to recover from this eruption. There is much work ahead and still grieving that needs to be done. I have met people that lost their homes and entire families on June 3rd. We need the healing of Jesus Christ to flow through this nation.

Blessings from Guate!
Daryl, Wanda and the Crew