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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Unnatural Disasters- By Maggie Mattaini

Maggie is living in El Salvador working with VMM (Volunteer Missionary Movement) for 2 years. Maggie helps with violence prevention workshops, teaches math and english classes, tutors in math, and care for children whose mother's are at women's workshops in a catholic parish in Mejicanos, a violent neighborhood in San Salvador. Maggie spent a saturday delivering supplies to communities in Santiago Texacuangos...this is her reflection (Taken from maggie's El Salvador newsletter, Sopita's Stories, issue 2 dec. 6 2009)

Unnatural Disasters

On November 7th, El Salvador was pounded by strong rains. Although the storm wasn’t strong enough to merit a name, it dropped as much rain on the country in one day as Hurricane Mitch did in four days in 2005. The rain caused floods and mudslides across the country, and left nearly 200 people dead and thousands homeless. A perfect example of a natural disaster, right?

Wrong. What happened in El Salvador was far from “natural.” True, the rains were natural and totally outside of the control of humans (putting aside concerns that global warming has affected these sorts of storms). However, the effect of those rains was not natural. Every one of those deaths was unnatural and unnecessary. It was the injustice and poverty that leaves the majority of Salvadorans vulnerable to such natural phenomena that really killed all of those people.

People in El Salvador build houses in high-risk areas, knowing the dangers, because they can’t afford to build elsewhere. They build houses out of tarps, sheet metal, and plastic because they can’t afford proper building materials. Even those houses built with cement or bricks often lack the appropriate reinforcement because materials like iron bars are too expensive. Then, when the disaster happens, roads which are poor in the best conditions become impassible and aid only reaches easily accessible communities.

After the rains, my friend and fellow Casa alum Beth Tellman, here for a year on a Fulbright scholarship, began organizing alongside other US citizens living here to help out communities who were affected by the rains in the municipality of Santiago Texacuangos. Since there are no large NGOs working in the region, Beth and her friends were (and at the moment still are) the only help that some of the communities had received. To learn more about her work and the situation of those communities, visit her blog at

One Saturday, I went out with Beth and her team of Salvadorans and US citizens. In the morning we went to the store and used donations from people across the United States to buy as many supplies as we could fit in her truck - food, soap, toothpaste, candles, matches, and other such items. Then we drove out to the FMLN building in Santiago Texacuangos where we joined a team of FMLN volunteers to sort out the donations. Finally, we drove out to distribute the supplies to a community which had yet to receive any outside help, even two weeks after the rains.

This community had lost four members that night - an entire family: mother, father, and two children, one nine years old and the other ten months. We met the woman’s brother, who showed us the pictures of the family that he had set up in a shrine to the victims. Then he brought us to the house where the family had lived. Since the strongest rains had come between 1 and 2 a.m., the family had been killed in their sleep. In the wreckage of the house, we could still see the beds where the family had been sleeping, mangled buckets, pages of the children’s books, and pieces of broken toys.

It was heartbreaking, standing there in the ruins of the house littered with the shattered remains of the family’s life, listening to this man tell us about his sister and her family. The hardest part was knowing that their deaths could have been prevented. The family lived on the side of a mountain, at a high risk of mudslides. To protect themselves, they had built a retaining wall to hold back the hill above them. These walls are built from cinderblocks and reinforced with iron bars, which provide the majority of the strength for the walls. However, since iron is expensive, this wall, like so many throughout El Salvador, was built with far fewer bars than necessary. Above the house, at the top of the hill, the construction of a retreat house was underway. However, the workers clearly had little training and had inadvertently diverted water flows, creating a large pool of water at the top of the hill on the night of the rains. In the end, the dirt gave way, sending the water and mud rushing down the hill, through the weak retaining wall and onto the house below.

El Salvador has no zoning laws, no building codes (at least not ones that are enforced), no protection for people like this family. Their poverty prevented them from building in a safer place or from building stronger structures to protect themselves. And of course, this family was not a unique case. Their story was repeated many times throughout the country that night. Just in that community, we saw many families had barely escaped death. Many houses had lost walls or roofs. Others, perched at the top of a cliff, had their back yards literally slide away down the mountain. Another 5 feet and their houses would have fallen as well.

All across El Salvador, there are millions of people who are similarly vulnerable to natural phenomena. The question is when we will stop picking up the pieces of people’s lives and start preventing the disasters.

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