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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 October 2005, 02:14 GMT 03:14 UK
Tourist town shattered by flood
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News

Thoughts in the flood-hit Guatemalan tourist town of Panajachel, on the shores of Lake Atitlan, are turning to the future.

Flood waters in Panajachel, Guatemala (pic courtesy of Duncan Aitken)
Flooding has caused major damage to Panajachel's infrastructure

It is a week since torrential rains brought by Tropical Storm Stan burst through the town, sweeping away homes and roads and leaving two children and two adults dead.

Several hundred people have taken refuge in shelters set up in schools and churches, according to emergency workers in the town.

Some 376 foreign travellers hiked their way to evacuation buses at the weekend, when roads blocked by mud and landslides finally became passable.

Now the challenge facing the town's mix of indigenous and Western citizens is how to ensure the homeless people's safety - and restore the town's infrastructure, its lake and its previously bustling tourist industry.

Disaster aftermath

Philipp Lustenberger, a doctor from Switzerland, used to work in Panajachel and was on holiday visiting a friend when the floods struck. He is helping out in an emergency clinic run by the Vivamos Mejor charity.

"We are dealing now with the aftermath of the disaster," he said. "People don't have houses, don't have enough food. We see people coming in and try to give them drinking water and a little bit of food.

Lake Atitlan before flooding caused by Tropical Storm Stan
The town is normally busy with tourists attracted by its beauty

"People don't know where to go and we can provide help for them here."

His friend's two-year-old daughter was one of those killed, he said, carried off when waters from the flooded river suddenly swept away a wall and poured through their house.

Duncan Aitken, an American who has run a travel business in Panajachel for the past 20 years, has been volunteering in shelters for those made homeless by the storm.

He said: "It's pretty bad here but it could be a lot worse. Somehow we still have electricity and a phone connection, and parts of town still have the internet.

"But the problem is we have a certain number of people who have lost everything - and people who really didn't have anything to start with and now have nothing."

Fuel shortage

The big worry now is how to provide people with food and drinking water in the coming weeks, he said.

"Last night I went round and visited one of the shelters, which had a list of 950 names of people without any food. But people aren't in a panic yet."

Felicia Chuj looks at her destroyed home in Panajachel (pic courtesy Duncan Aitken)
Many indigenous people living in Panajachel have lost their homes

The military arrived on Friday with supply trucks, he said, but drinking water could be a problem because of the mud and sewage washed into the lake. Corn harvests may also be affected and firewood for cooking is in short supply.

"The government seems to be doing what it can to get stuff in though and a lot of aid agencies are doing what they can," he added.

Jennifer Knight, a South African doctor who is working in the town's emergency clinic, is concerned environmental damage to the lake could seriously threaten the surrounding communities' recovery.

"It's becoming an environmental and economic disaster. There's a 20m (66ft) rim of litter around it, plastic debris everywhere," she said.

"People rely on it for fish and water and survival, and tourism as well.

"The Guatemalans have enough on their hands so we hope the 'Gringo community' here can bring in some funds to help - which could pay local people a much-needed salary to clean it up."

A popular destination for US and European travellers, Lake Atitlan plays an important role in the local economy.

Unless its water are restored to their former state, it is hard to see how a town described by the Rough Guide travel book as "the booming lakeside resort of Panajachel" will get back on its feet.

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