So common are eruptions from El Fuego Volcano in southern Guatemala that mobile phone videos of volcanic activity are easy to find on the internet. In one such post, encouragement and even cheering for further activity can be heard while the volcano spews ash in the background. El Fuego is one in a string of volcanoes that draws tourists to a region highly dependent upon visitor spending. In an ironic twist of fate, the tourist attraction can turn from charming to deadly without warning.
In February, the volcano erupted, issuing enough ash to close the national airport some 30 miles away. At 4.55 p.m. on Sunday, June 3, the most violent volcanic eruption in Guatemala in over one hundred years took at least 100 lives, displaced nearly 1,500 with at least 200 still missing and presumed dead.
According to Guatemalan newspaper, Prensa Libre, the Gómez Rivas family lost two children, 17 and 19, when they went with friends to a bridge in the neighboring city of Las Lajas to watch the lava flow. In a scene reminiscent of Italy’s historic Mount Vesuvius’ eruption burying the city of Pompeii with people frozen in position due to lack of warning, El Fuego took surrounding habitants by surprise, consuming entire communities in pyroclastic flow.
Reaction and demonstrations of help from neighboring countries was swift and appreciated. A Tweet from the presidential offices of El Salvador declared, “The Government of El Salvador expresses condolences to the people and government of Guatemala, for the unfortunate loss of life due to the Fuego Volcano eruption that took place today.” The message went on to say that rescue duties would be undertaken by their department of ‘Search and Rescue’ who have collaborated on humanitarian tasks with other countries. The Salvadorian government offered to accept any flights that had been diverted from the Guatemalan airport, according to newspaper El Mundo.
In a press conference just hours after the eruptions, Guatemalan President, Jimmy Morales expressed thanks to Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras for their immediate pledges of assistance. Later that week, he announced that several children would be treated in Mexico and the United States.
The White House voiced support in a press release, “The people of the United States extend our deepest condolences to the victims of the ongoing eruption of Fuego Volcano in Guatemala. At the request of the Government of Guatemala, we are sending emergency aid, including financial resources to help meet food, water, and sanitation needs for the affected population.”
One of the swiftest reactions came from the Shriners Hospital in Galveston, Texas who sent an emergency team to Guatemala to treat children with burn injuries. The medical facility worked with the U.S. embassy and military to arrange travel, and visas and four days after the eruption, 6 children along with 5 guardians arrived in Galveston via U.S. military airplanes. The children have been admitted to the intensive care unit with critical burns. The facility is assuming all costs. According to a hospital press release, “This is an effort that has been deployed previously for other natural disasters as a response to our global commitment to children around the world.”
El Fuego volcano is located about a dozen miles from the country’s old capital of Antigua and just under 30 miles from modern day capital, Guatemala City. The volcano stands at over 12,000 feet and is capable of throwing ash and debris over four miles high. The volcano’s first recorded eruptions occurred in the 1500’s, however this month’s activity was the deadliest in a century. An Oregon State study shows that the Guatemalan volcano with most life lost was the Santa Maria, which erupted in 1902 and killed 6,000. The Santa Maria eruption was the 9th worst in recorded history.
Along the entire stretch of Central America, from the Mexican-Guatemalan border, through El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, a string of volcanoes comprise the Middle America trench of the ‘Ring of Fire,’ so named because it is a semi-circle of destruction responsible for tsunamis, earthquakes and three fourthsx of the world’s volcanoes, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In the Pacific Ocean, Indonesia lies almost entirely in the path of the Ring of Fire and accounts for 4 of the top 10 deadliest volcanic eruptions in history, the worst claiming over 70,000 victims.
As opposed to the pyroclastic eruption in Guatemala that resulted in a quickly moving (up to 700 kilometers per hour) heap of ash, lava and gases that destroyed nearly everything and everyone in its wake, the Kilauea Volcano on the island of Hawaii is much slower moving, allowing for tourist spectacle, and most importantly, evacuations. That wasn’t always the case. In 1790, an eruption of the Kilauea volcano took more than 400 lives, one of the deadliest volcanic incidents in history.
This year’s Kilauea eruption caused little personal damage but substantial property damage. Mayor Harry Kim claimed more than 700 homes had been destroyed. This round of eruptions began in the mid 1980’s, increasing in intensity in May. One month since this latest activity, the U.S. Geological Survey has downgraded the natural disaster to “stable” and many residents with homes still intact have been allowed to return.
The lava flow demonstrates how the Hawaiian islands were formed; Kilauea spewed lava and ash nearly 200 feet in the air and snaked down the island until cooling in the sea, extending the boundary of the territory. The USGS reported that lava has covered nine miles of the island and has added at least one mile of new ground to the island. At least 20 fissures have been identified in this latest volcanic eruption, gas emissions remain at dangerous levels near the lava spill, and the volcanic crater has nearly doubled in size. The Kilauea Volcano is rated as the most damaging in the U.S. since the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980. The Washington volcano resulted in nearly 60 deaths with over 250 destroyed homes. Mount St. Helens is also part of the Ring of Fire.