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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 October 2006, 13:06 GMT 14:06 UK
Painful legacy of Guatemala storm
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News

A year ago to the day, heavy rains caused by Tropical Storm Stan brought mudslides crashing down on dozens of Guatemalan villages.

Rescuers search for people caught in mudslides in Guatemala, October 2005
Guatemala was the hardest-hit in the region by Tropical Storm Stan

Some 670 people died and hundreds more remain unaccounted for, believed buried under the torrents of mud that engulfed homes, roads and bridges.

Nor has life for survivors in the worst-affected highland areas - mostly home to the indigenous Mayan Tzujuhil people - been easy.

Several thousand families are still living in temporary shelters, surviving on aid after the mud swept away their livelihoods and everything they owned.

Meanwhile, the grim task of finding and identifying bodies swallowed by the mud continues.

Psychological effects

In Santiago Atitlan, a town on the shores of Lake Atitlan where several hundred died in mudslides, the prospect of resettlement seems a long way off.

Half-built houses in Santiago Atitlan (picture courtesy Joel Inwood, Pueblo a Pueblo)
Replacement houses in Santiago stand abandoned half-built

Next to the compound where hundreds of families live in basic canvas and plastic shelters, half-built houses destined for them stand abandoned on the hillside.

Mid-way through construction, the authorities realised the new site was also prone to landslips. A different spot must now be found for the families' relocation - difficult in an area where free land is scarce.

Dr Leah Abraham, a doctor working at a hospital run by US-charity Pueblo a Pueblo in Santiago, said some people, frustrated by the delays, had returned to their old homes despite the danger of further mudslides.

"They are going to start excavating bodies from the mud... and it's been declared uninhabitable because of the risk - but what can you do when you have thousands of people living there and nowhere to move them to?"

Although the hospital re-opened in rented premises soon after the mudslide hit, fundraising is under way to rebuild on a new site more accessible to those who need its services most.

Food aid

In all, some 1.5 million people were affected by the torrential rains brought by Stan, the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) estimates.

Map showing Guatemala and surrounding countries
At least 4,800 families still living in temporary shelters
About 20,000 families still receiving direct food aid from WFP
A further 40,000 helped by food-for-work programmes
In total, some 79,000 families - or 400,000 people - given food aid by the WFP in the past year
About 1.5m Guatemalans directly affected by Stan
Source: UN World Food Programme
And the economic impact - in one of the poorest countries in Central America - has been worse than that of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, says WFP country director Willem Van Millink.

Some 20,000 families continue to depend on direct food aid from the WFP, he told the BBC News website from Guatemala.

Others, who have repaired their homes but whose land and livelihoods have been affected by Stan, still need support for times when food is scarce.

"The combination of poverty and other factors is creating a very fragile situation regarding food security," Mr Van Millink said.

Guatemala's government and other agencies have made an "extraordinary" effort to repair roads, bridges, schools and health centres, Mr Van Millink said.

But, he said, the priority now must be to re-house those families still living in temporary housing.

Estimates vary as to the numbers concerned. While the WFP says 4,800 families are in shelters, the Red Cross in Guatemala cites a government figure of 7,500 and warns the reality could be double that.

'Huge need'

Even before Tropical Storm Stan hit, Guatemala had its problems. According to the UN, one in five people live in extreme poverty and half of children under five have chronic malnutrition - the third highest rate in the world.

A body is recovered in Panabaj (pic courtesy Natalie Albrecht)
Aid workers helped bereaved families after the mudslides

Marco Diaz, working for the Norwegian Red Cross in Guatemala, says that while most communities have recovered from Stan, they are still in a position of huge need.

"People lost everything and they were really very poor. They maybe only had a small house and one chair and one table but they lost these and for them it's a total disaster. They don't have the resources to start again."

Immediately after the storm, aid efforts focused on delivering emergency relief, medical help and clean water.

Red Cross workers also helped recover the bodies of those killed, provided coffins and offered bereaved families psycho-social support.

We are not ready yet for another Stan
Willem Van Millink

In the months since, aid teams have helped communities dig new wells, lay pipes and install sanitation systems.

In an attempt to prevent future disasters, villagers have also been encouraged to set up early warning systems for storms and floods.

But while much has been done to improve disaster preparedness, Mr Van Millink says, still more is needed.

So far this year, Guatemala has escaped severe weather - but two months remain of what the US weather agency warned would be an above-normal hurricane season.

"We need to be much better prepared than we are right now," Mr Van Millink said. "We are at a better level than when Stan occurred - but we are not ready yet for another Stan."

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