The storms displaced hundreds of thousands of people, creating a new class of refugees with more reason than ever to migrate north and setting up an early test for the incoming Biden administration.
A report by Natalie Kitroeff for The New York Times.
By the time they heard the slab of earth cracking off the mountain, it was already burying their neighbors. So the people of Quejá — the lucky ones — ran out of their homes with nothing, trudging barefoot through mud as tall as their children until they reached dry land.
All that’s left of this village in Guatemala is their memories.
“This is where I live,” said Jorge Suc Ical, standing atop the sea of rocks and muddy debris that entombed his town. “It’s a cemetery now.”
Already crippled by the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, Central America is now confronting another catastrophe: The mass destruction caused by two ferocious hurricanes that hit in quick succession last month, pummeling the same fragile countries, twice.
The storms, two of the most powerful in a record-breaking season, demolished tens of thousands of homes, wiped out infrastructure and swallowed vast swaths of cropland.
The magnitude of the ruin is only beginning to be understood, but its repercussions are likely to spread far beyond the region for years to come. The hurricanes affected more than five million people — at least 1.5 million of them children — creating a new class of refugees with more reason than ever to migrate.
Officials conducting rescue missions say the level of damage brings to mind Hurricane Mitch, which spurred a mass exodus from Central America to the United States more than two decades ago.
“The devastation is beyond compare,” said Adm. Craig S. Faller, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, which has been delivering aid to survivors of the storm. “When you think about Covid, plus the double punch of these two massive, major hurricanes back to back — there are some estimates of up to a decade just to recover.”
The relentless rain and winds of Hurricanes Eta and Iota downed dozens of bridges and damaged more than 1,400 roads in the region, submerging a Honduran airport and making lagoons out of entire cities in both countries. From the sky, Guatemala’s northern highlands look as though they’ve been clawed apart, with giant gashes marking the sites of landslides.
If the devastation does set off a new wave of immigration, it would test an incoming Biden administration that has promised to be more open to asylum seekers, but may find it politically difficult to welcome a surge of claimants at the border.
In Guatemala and Honduras, the authorities readily admit they cannot begin to address the misery wrought by the storms.
Leaders of both countries last month called on the United Nations to declare Central America the region most affected by climate change, with warming ocean waters making many storms stronger and the warmer atmosphere making rainfall from hurricanes more ruinous.
“Hunger, poverty and destruction do not have years to wait,” said President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala, pleading for more foreign aid. “If we don’t want to see hordes of Central Americans looking to go to countries with a better quality of life, we have to create walls of prosperity in Central America.”
Mr. Giammattei also requested that the United States grant so-called temporary protection status to Guatemalans currently in the country, so they won’t be deported amid the natural disaster.
With hundreds of thousands of people still crowded into shelters in Guatemala, the risk of coronavirus spread is high. Aid workers have found widespread disease in remote communities hammered by the twin storms, including fungal infections, gastritis and flulike sicknesses.
“We are facing an imminent health crisis,” said Sofía Letona, the director of Antigua to the Rescue, an aid group, “Not just because of Eta and Iota, but also because these communities are completely unprotected from a second wave of Covid.”
Just as pressing are the illnesses brought on by a lack of food, potable water and shelter from continuing rain.
“What I’m seeing is that the smallest children are the most affected by nutritional disorders,” said Francisco Muss, a retired general helping lead Guatemala’s recovery.
With little government support, Guatemalans have had to come up with creative solutions. Near the border with Mexico, people crowd into handmade rafts to cross immense lakes created by the storms. To traverse one river in the east, commuters hop into a wire basket, attached to a zip line where a bridge used to be.
Francisco García swims back and forth across a muddy waterway to pick up food for his neighbors.
“I did this during Mitch,” he said, gesturing toward the crowd of young boys who have gathered to watch him take his fourth trip of the day. “They have to learn.”
No one knows exactly how many people in Quejá died in the mudslide, though local officials put the toll at about 100. The Guatemalan government called off the search for the dead in early November.
Just a few weeks earlier, the town was celebrating: The monthslong coronavirus curfew had been lifted and the local soccer league’s championship tournament could begin. The first round was held in Quejá, known for its pristine, natural-grass soccer field. Hundreds streamed in to watch their favorite teams, while local fans now in the United States followed the game live on Facebook.
“People went there because of the field,” said Álvaro Pop Gue, who plays midfield for one of Quejá’s teams. “It was beautiful.”
Now their season is on hold, with their beloved field sinking in water.
Reyna Cal Sis, the principal of the town’s primary school, believes 19 of her students died that day, including two kindergartners and a 14-year-old named Martín, who liked to help her clean up after class.
“He had just started sprouting hairs on his upper lip,” she said. “He lived with his mother and his siblings, right near where the land came down.”
The boulders blanketing Quejá today are almost as tall as the electricity wires. The only road into the village is encased in mud so thick and wet that its residents leave holes in it the shape of legs. Still, they walk it, carrying tattered wardrobes and bags of coffee beans on their backs, extracting what they can from the wreckage of their homes.
People started leaving here for the United States only a few years ago, but Ms. Cal Sis is certain more will follow. “They are determined, now that they’ve lost almost everything,” she said.
Mr. Suc, 35, was eating lunch with his family when the sound shook his home. “It was like two bombs exploding,” he said. He ran out to find a gusher of mud crushing everything in sight, sending roofs and walls careening through the town.
“There are houses right in front, and they are coming at us all of a sudden,” Mr. Suc said. “A lot of people were trapped in there.”
One of them was his niece, Adriana Calel Suc, a 13-year-old with a knack for customer service honed by selling soda and snacks in her mother’s store. Mr. Suc never saw her again.
After the disaster, Mr. Suc walked for four hours to reach Santa Elena, the nearest dry village, pulling along his grandfather and distributing two of his children to stronger, taller family members who hoisted them above waist-deep water on the journey. But after he and other survivors spent weeks in makeshift shelters there, the town’s hospitality ran out.
On Saturday, a group of Santa Elena residents looted the stock of provisions in town that had been donated to Quejá’s residents. Mr. Suc is now looking for anywhere else to go. He has no idea how he could make it to the United States, but he’s ready to try.
“Yes, we’re thinking about migrating,” he said, eyeing the dwindling bag of corn he has left to feed his family. “Because, to give our children bread? We have nothing.”