by Andrea Basche
This is the second post in our three-part series on flood and storm response in Guatemala, and how it could be improved through collaborative efforts with organizations and companies on the Gulf Coast.
In my last post, I looked at the challenges that Guatemala and other developing countries face due to climate change. Unfortunately, planning for long-term risks must often be postponed because near-term crises take precedence. In this piece, we'll look at one of those disasters in detail, and in the last post of the series, we will discuss how Guatemala's responsiveness to storm risk could be enhanced through a longer-term strategy of adaptation and resilience.
La Tormenta Tropical
Tropical Storm Agatha formed last May in the warm waters of the tropical Pacific. What began as a cluster of thunderstorms on May 24 morphed into a tropical depression as the system moved north across open ocean. On May 29, Agatha made landfall near the Guatemala/Mexico border.
As it cut across Central America towards the Caribbean Sea, the storm left a trail of death and devastation. On May 29 and May 30, Agatha pounded its way through a densely populated corridor of southern Guatemala, delivering as much as three feet of rain in a twenty-four hour period. Portions of Guatemala received their highest rainfall in six decades, turning dirt roads into mud traps and cutting off transportation throughout much of Guatemala’s mountainous interior.
At least 160 Guatemalans lost their lives in the storm, which damaged 95 percent of the country’s roads and destroyed nearly 200 bridges. A great deal of media attention fell on Guatemala City and the massive sinkhole that emerged near its urban core after Agatha, but there was much less coverage of the storm’s effect on rural communities.
In San Miguel Escobar, the rains unleashed an estimated 400,000 cubic meters of soil and loose rock from surrounding hillsides, causing mudslides that destroyed 65 homes, damaged another 40 residences, and resulted in four fatalities. About 75 percent of the maize crop was lost, as well as freshly planted wheat, oats, and coffee.
The town’s residents partnered with AGAIG to immediately begin the process of rebuilding. “Our families cooked several thousand meals for victims and rescue workers,” said Franklin Voorhes, the organization’s founder. “They distributed thousands of dollars of building materials. Eight months later, they continue to coordinate the construction of homes and rebuilding of workshops. Even a few years ago they didn’t have enough margin in their lives to provide that type of support.”
San Miguel Escobar was relatively lucky that it had some resources on hand to cope with this disaster. However, it is important to remember that all this damage was due to a rainstorm that never even reached hurricane status, meaning that stronger hits from future storms might overwhelm the limited disaster management capacity of the town and others like it across Guatemala.
And when one looks at the climate forecasts for the next few decades, the situation looks like it may get worse before it gets better.
Less Frequent Rain, More Violent Storms
The 2007 IPCC Regional Projections suggest that Central America likely will see an overall decrease in precipitation between now and the end of the 21st century due to global warming. At the same time, a study published last year in Nature Geoscience suggests that hurricanes and other tropical storms may be more violent when they do hit the region, as cyclone activity in the tropics is expected to increase in intensity while decreasing in frequency. This scenario suggests that the likely trend is toward fewer, but far more intense storms, so while Guatemala may receive less annual precipitation in the coming decades, it will be at greater risk for more heavy precipitation events if and when rainstorms arrive.
This outlook is very frightening for a poor country with underdeveloped infrastructure that is heavily reliant on rain-fed agriculture. How will Guatemala deal with these issues? How should its residents construct homes to better weather stronger hurricanes? What sort of infrastructure should be developed to cope with more intense floods?
In our next post, we will consider some of the ways that Louisiana and its neighbors along the Gulf Coast could help Guatemala to address these challenges.
Andrea Basche is a researcher and teaching assistant at Columbia University's Earth Institute. She works on projects at the intersection of climate adaptation and agricultural development, with a particular focus on Latin America and Southeast Asia. A graduate of Fordham and Columbia, Ms. Basche has also written posts for the Wall Street Journal's Metropolisblog and the Earth Institute's Climate Matters blog.