Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Haiti, Guatemala, & Las Vegas

As Bob and I watch the news of Haiti and the people there trying to make their way out of the rubble.  He has been telling me "Guatemala Stories" about his experience in the Guatemala earthquakes during the 70's and 80's.  I have never experienced real disaster like that.  When he speaks, I see a sadness come over him.  When I sent a donation to Haiti, I honestly didn't know what or where it would  help.  When Bob shared with me, I realized how he has helped so many people in ways his friends and family don't even know.
Although he tries to be positive about the aid from the US,  I think he saw some pretty devastating things.  I have cut and pasted a post he wrote a few days ago on the USN knife forums.  Bob walks around with all these experiences from his life in Central America.  I'm pleased he could share his experience with us.
The Haitian Earthquake has brought back some memories . Maybe some of you will find them of interest.  In 1974, I was working as a contractor to USAID in Guatemala. The project was the Basic Village Education program in which we had constructed two radio stations and were attempting, over seven years, to improve the production of subsistence level farmers in the Indian and Latino areas of rural Guatemala. I was the field supervisor in charge of statistical surveys of 7,000 farmers. I trained and supervised 30 interviewers who went out to the "campo" to meet with and interview these farmers.
On 4 February 1974, at 3:15 AM, The country was hit with an 8.6 earthquake that lasted 32 seconds and within minutes, 28,000 people were dead across the land, crushed under the tile and adobe of their simple homes.

You've all seen the pictures from Haiti of the collapsed buildings and destroyed roads. That was the scene in Guatemala; no electricity or light, (it was a moonless night), no communication, few passable roads, rubble where buildings used to be-- only moments before. There was an eerie silence, broken only by the baying of terrified dogs. Then the cries for help and the screams of the injured and dying.

And here is a note of pride for all Americans:
By 6:30 that same morning, three hours and 15 minutes after the shock, as the sun was rising, the first U.S.Military planes were touching down at Guatemala's main airport, which was relatively undamaged.

These planes had come from the Southern Command base near Panama City where they were stationed, pre-fueled and pre-loaded on taxiways near the runway.
I had often seen these planes, lined up as if ready to take off, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama. I wasn't sure what they were all about until that February day in Guatemala.

The planes, C-130 Hercules and giant C5A Starlifters are part of the U.S. contingency plans for disasters anywhere in the Latin American Region. They were always ready to lift off, their engines were started up every few hours to keep them warm for instant deployment. The first planes were loaded with D8 Caterpillars and other earth movers to clear landing strips and open roads for communication. Later, they would bury the dead in mass graves.Following planes carried water, food, medical supplies and even complete hospitals which could be transported by helicopter to the hardest hit rural areas. (More about that in later posts).

In those days, before MRE's, the food largely consisted of C and K rations in cardboard boxes with little cans of stuff like ham and eggs (my personal favorite), cheese and crackers, stew (ugh!), beans, etc. In addition there was a little packet of gum, waterproof matches, a p-35 can opener, a little roll of toilet paper (more like wax paper) and 4 cigarettes ( which I gave away), but no pipe tobacco! We, at the project , mobilized immediately to do our bit. We had four of the very first K-5 Blazers and used them for recon, transporting the injured from inaccessible places and distribution of relief supplies.

I, and two other Americans, Dave Thompson and Gordy Straub ( brother of author Peter Straub) were dropped by Chinook or Huey helicopter several times with dirt bikes to recon some very remote Indian villages in the Highlands near the Mexican border, which had become inaccessible due to land slides. We organized the stricken villagers and prepared the way for air drops or helicopter delivery of relief supplies.
I saw a lot of the country during those two weeks. It was an exhilarating and exhausting period of my life when all considerations other than rescue and relief became unimportant.

I've already mentioned the medical supplies flown into Guatemala after the earthquake of 1974. Here are some details.
It took us ( me and guys from our project) two days to get to a major town in the Highlands called Chimaltenango. This town was about 40 kilometers west of the capitol and was important because it was the crossroads of some major highways, all of which were blocked by landslides. Our Blazers barely made it over the numerous blockages and we set up a base in the house of a Peace Corps Volunteer at the edge of the town.

To our surprise, the U.S. Army was already there and functioning. They had airlifted the portable hospital flown up from Panama in a C5A and had set up most of it by the second day. This was a 100 bed, multi tent hospital, complete with surgical suites,  ICU's,  X-ray machines (no MRI's or CAT scans in those days!), recovery tents, neo-natal facilities and everything else that goes with state of the art medical care.They had even brought a tent full of Pampers disposable diapers. It was explained to me that during a disaster, especially earthquakes, pre-mature births were common.

I was amazed to see three Coke machines installed outside one of the surgical tents. A nurse told me that the stress of disaster management was mitigated by the little things that reminded the staff of home and more normal times, like a can of Coke.

With our four Blazers, our project team was able to reach outlying villages, so we trucked supplies up to them. On one trip, returning from a drop, I was flagged down by two Indian men on the side of the road who explained that they had an injured person they wanted transported to the hospital in Chimaltenango. Four other men emerged from a path at the roadside, carrying the front door of a house upon which was a young woman. She had been badly injured with a broken back, two broken legs and a broken arm. She was awake, but stoic, as so many of the Indian people are. On the bumpy and sometimes treacherous trip back, I'm sure she was in terrible pain-- but she never complained or cried out once. We got her into the Army hospital where she was well cared for. Checking on her, days later, I learned that she was not paralyzed and would heal, scarred but whole.

On another trip I brought back an injured, pregnant woman who was already in labor. That was a long ride, with me mumbling prayers to whomever that she hold out until we reached the base. Fortunately she did!

One day while I was eating a C-ration behind the hospital, I watched a Huey land on a makeshift Landing Zone about fifty yards away. There was smoke pouring out of its engine. Like worker ants, Army mechanics swarmed over the bird, removed its engine and replaced it with a spare one. That Huey was back in the air in no time, I think less than an hour.

Everyone worked at a frantic pace and on little sleep. My team was ordered back to Guatemala City after about a week, for R&R and a shower. The USAID people didn't want us burning out and becoming useless. We went and returned two days later to the same area.

Curiously, food is not usually a big problem after an earthquake. Stores of food in granaries, shops, even homes, though buried under rubble , can often be accessed and used by the survivors, at least for a short time. Grain (corn), beans, and canned goods aren't destroyed as they are in a flood or scattered as in a tornado.

Water was the big concern. Broken mains, poor sanitation and the threat of disease such as cholera made potable water a primary focus. Bottled water on huge pallets had not come along yet in 1974 but the Army had a solution.
They airlifted two huge trucks with water purifying capabilities next to a tiny lake called "Swan Lake", about a mile from the hospital. They set up several large, black rubber tanks, (like above ground swimming pools), threw a four inch hose into the lake and cranked up the trucks. Those trucks purified 25,000 gallons of water per minute! It was a joy to see. Water was lifted, by chopper, in huge rubber bladders to the outlying villages that we had identified during our recon phase.

I don,t know how many lives the U.S. Army saved during those frightful days, I don't think anyone will ever know. But I could not have been more proud of my country to see the response and the determination of those dedicated men and women.
So the man who is leaving for Las Vegas tomorrow to attend the "Tactical Invitational Show", is the same guy eating C rations above. 
I'm proud of the life he lead in Guatemala.  I certainly is different than the life we lead now!  It explains why he is so easy to cook for.  C-rations?  Yuk.

I had hoped to unearth some old photos for this, but he was too busy getting knives ready for this show.   Maybe I will add them later.

This is the second post.  Before I hit publish, I want to thank everyone who read the first.  It's a bit easier to click on publish the second time. :-)


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1 comment:

  1. How is it fair that a gifted knifemaker is also such a gifted writer?? I felt I was there witnessing the events you related. Thank you Bob for taking the time to jot down these memories.