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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Can Josue save his House?

This Wednesday and Thursday evening (June 22 and 23) Heavy Rains pounded the sandy soil of the nieghborhood of el Borborllon, the most vulnerable part of the Joya Grande, the most vulnerable community in the vulnerable municipality of Santiago Texacuangos. Of the vulnerable country, El Salvador. One of the 10 most vulnerable countries in the world....

CEIBA received a call early Friday morning from Ivette, who is the leader of Community Commission for Civil Protection in her sector, El Borborllon, that her neighbor Juana's house was on the point of a collapse. A HUGE sink hole (in El Salvador, we call them carcavas), had formed right on Juana's Patio. We arrived in the afternoon to check out the carcava, nearly 7 meters tall and 5 meters wide. Looked like this:
     Ivette and her neighbors gathered around the top of the whole, looking down. This used to be the path up to Juana's house, and now, it is a huge sinkhole 3 feet from her front door. Ivette explained that this happened in the rains just this week, and that she hadn't slept in 3 nights, standing watch for her neighbors, watching the hole grow and grow, waiting til the right moment to evacuate her community as a last resort. The children (grecia-8, maybi-12, and nataniel-6), gathered around looked worried. But no face was as sullen as Josue's. Josue is 6 years old, and lives with his grandma Juana and his Grandpa, whose house is now 3 feet from the hole. Josue's parents are nowhere to be found. The US? other parts of El Salvador? are they alive? Its a silent part of the story that Josue has yet to tell. Here is me and Josue, looking down in the abyss where his house might fall.

To fix a "carcava", you need to fill it. With cement, sticks, and stones. You need heavy machinary. You need materials. It would probabaly cost thousands of dollars. What to do?

I remembered that we had left a roll of black tarp here in Joya Grande last year. Jonathan, a CEIBA volunteer, convinced me that we had to give communities responsibility to take care of the tarp, and was sure they would save it til next year (I wasn't so convinced). In the end, he was right. As stood at Don Cleto's door, leader of sector Zacatera (another member of the Communal Commission for Civil Protection, which CEIBA trained and formed last year), I was astounded as he ran into his home, and dragged out a dusty roll of black tarp. YES! He kept it safely, waiting for the right emergency. That emergency would be today.  As I showed Cleto (or Mr. (Meeester) Clay, as I call him) the pictures of the carcava, he was instantly upset, "Why didn't Ivette CALL me sooner?!?"
     It was 5:30 p.m. I knew we had 30 minutes of light left. I thought to myself....lets wait til tommorrow morning? Mr. Clay looked at me puzzled. No Beth, we have to take care of this NOW. If it rains tonite, the water could wash away the remaining 3 feet between the edge of the hole and the foundation of Josue's house. Mr. Clay ran into his house, changed in 7 seconds, and ran back out.         
     "Let's Go. Call Ivette, I need at least 4 men." Mr. Clay also called Oscar, sector leader of la playa, who came running to meet us. We passed a truck of policemen on the way. Norma, a CEIBA volunteer for the day, called out to them, "Hey, we need help in El Borborllon. Its an emergency. Will you help us lay the tarp before nightfall?"
     And the police response, "Sure, be there in a bit."
     and Norma: "No. Now. We need you to follow us right this second. And see than man running? (referring to Oscar, a 50+ year old man fervishly running up from the lakeshore), get him in the back of your pick-up!" Norma rarely takes no for an answer. Wait, she NEVER takes no for an answer!
     We drove the car up the riverbed as far as we could, and walked another 500 meters to the carcava. As we approached Ivette, she was already waiting with her husband and 2 other men to help. and of course, at least 15 neighbors came to watch. As we stretched out the plastic, we realized it was ALMOST enough to cover the hole. As if we had planned to save just that amount of tarp for a situation just this size...

One major glitch. We have no rope! Mr. Clay exclaimed that we need rope to stake down the tarp and stretch it exactly so that rain water glides right over the hole, instead of continuing to eat at the side of the hole. Rope? Ivette? Who as rope? As all the adults shook their heads, Josue remembered: I HAVE ROPE! Josue, 6 year old, was a participant in our pilot project of children's disaster prevention in the Borborllon. CEIBA gave each child an "emergency kit backpack" of harnesses, first aid supplies, whistles, flashlights and....4 meters of rope!!! The kids all went running like a bat outta hell towards their homes to find their ropes in their backpacks. Children's Emergency Committee El Borborllon in action!
Josue with his blue rope, measuring about 2.5 Josues long
   It is important to note here that Josue was not considered...the brightest of the group. He often came late to workshops, and sometime his parents did not let him come at all as punishment for not behaving in school. Josue is one of those hyperactive kids, who tends to just run and run and run around, and has a hard time doing sit-down activities required in school. Josue became a special friend of Fredy, one of CEIBA's trainers for the emergency committee. Fredy would expend Josue's energy by making him the "star helper." Since Josue would evidently finish all sit-down activities, (like coloring your own house and marking earthqauke exits) before the rest, so he would help Fredy clean up. Josue has an obviously low self esteem. Maybe he is harshly punished at home, or maybe he feels unloved since his parents left him with his grandparents...never to be seen again...
   And so Maybi returned, sadly reporting that her mother had been using her rope to collect firewood to cook for her family, and lost her rope. But Grecia (8) had hers, Nataniel (6) had his, and Josue, with a HUGE grin, handed me his for measurement. "yep. its a bout 2.5 Josues long! just right!" Grecia burst into giggles, as we began to unravel the 3 blue ropes to tie down the stakes.
   Meanwhile, I phone our "municipal delegate of Civil Protection," whom the community had been phoning all morning. I flusteredly explained to him that this was a real emergency, and why didn't he come?!?! This house could fall over at any second. Mr. "municipal delegate" explained to me that:
a. it was not his job to check out carcavas, that was for another government department and that
b. I should tell the family to leave their home. ?!?!
TO WHERE??? sigh. such is generally the response we get from local government here in Santiago Texacuangos.
       Norma tried another strategy: the governor. He answered, but could barely hear Norma due to the poor phone signal in this remote mountainous area. He promised to stay "pendiente" , or keep an eye out, on the emergency, and that he would call the head of Police to do rounds all night to watch future formation of the carcava and possible damage to Josue's house.
Norma, with Grecia, Josue and Maybi. Amish in the background.
    By this time, nearly 30 people had come to watch the show. There were even some North American Amish Mennonites (bonnet and all) who walked up and asked me what in tarnation we were doing. and who was I? I had heard lots about them, and how they built sheet metal houses after Hurricane Ida in exchange for people going to their church. After that, they dedicated themselves to evangelization, and spiritual reconstruction. I had seen them in their air conditioned enormous suburban, driving around the community, and had previously approached them so we could coordinate projects together, and got no response (we only do spiritual work....) ok. right. Anyways, they were inspired by the situation, and CEIBA's ability to pull the neighbors together to save Josue's house. How much more tarp do you need?
"25 yards!" I exclaimed.
and how much does that cost?
"about 20 bucks!" full well knowing the price of plastic tarp after having bought at least 600 yards of it over the past year.
"and who's the treasurer here???"
 Norma and I immediately stuck out our hands, exchanging an embarrassed giggle. "We are all the treasuers sir, this is a youth collective," I tried to explain. Mr Amish man looked at me puzzled, and handed me the 20 bucks. As soon as a left, I asked the Salvadorans "Who can go to town tommorrow to buy the rest of the tarp?" Of course, these gringos would give me money, but probabaly not directly to a Salvadoran. But I will! I know and trust these people. This is the Community's Emergency Committee! and they safe guarded the tarp from the last year! I handed the money to Oscar, who promised to get on the bus first thing in the morning to buy tarp. I later found out that he milled around at least 4 hardware stores, going all the way to the center of San Salvador to get the "best price." The locals really know how to stretch a dollar.
    As the final stakes were put down, Norma said to Josue. "Josue! You saved your house! Lets give a round of applause to our heroes, the children's emergency committee of El Borborllon!" As all the neighbors and police erupted in applause, Josue grinned just about the largest grin I have ever seen. He was the hero of the day, and this was probabaly the most important moment of his life. A Big Deal. and big deal for CEIBA. Our project of Children's Disaster Prevention has met an insane amount of skeptisim and resistance. Community leaders would prefer we just build another house. Our fellow Municipal members of Regional Disaster Governance take it as a "soft" project. But take this suprising stat: The MOST VULNERABLE population in water disaster are children ages 5-14 (Peek 2008). Worldwide, this is the population that needs to be attented to. In Joya Grande alone, 4 children died during Hurricane Ida. In this adult-centered society, it is easy to say that we should focus all resources training adults. But in some cases, kids can actually help themselves and others.  and sometimes, in the case of Josue, kids can save their own home. So here's to our heroes of the night, Grecia, Nataniel, Maybi, and Josue! QUE VIVA EL COMITE DE EMERGENCIA INFANTIL EL BORBORLLON!

 On the walk back, Norma called Fredy to tell him how Josue, his Star Helper, had saved his home.
Fredy Viera, one of CEIBA's Volunteer Trainers leading children in a Disaster Drill.
Josue learning how to make a split on Giovany's arm
As she told the story, Fredy got strangely silent. Did he lose cell service? Fredy? "I'm just a little choked up," Fredy was brought to tears by the story, because he knows how much Josue struggles with self confidence, and how infrequenly he smiles. and the thought of Josue grinning and giggling as the hero of the day simply brought Fredy to tears.

Thanks to the generosity of the Sladek Family, Fred Sanchez, and CEIBA donors from our Indianapolis tour, we will be launching our second Children's Emergency Committee in sector La Marmonera, where 2 children where buried alive during landslides of Hurricane Ida, November 2009. We hope to teach these children new skills like first-aid, evacuation routes, and of course, why its important to have a rope around. I think we will even bring Josue the day we give emergency backpacks to these 25 new children, so he can explain the importance of saving every item in the back pack for real emergencies, and of course, tell the story of how he saved his house.

Sources: Peek, Lori. 2008. Children and Disasters: Understanding Vulnerability, Developing Capacities, and Promoting Resilience- An Introduction. Children, Youth and Environments 18(1), p2-29.

1 comment:

  1. Oh Beth, this is SO beautiful. Thank you for writing this (I know that blogs take time, but they are beyond wonderful for those of us at home!) and for being there to empower those children. New Orleans, El Salvador - all of these amazing kids who need love. In solidarity with you! (and donating more as soon as I post this comment so you can continue your good work).