Guatemala, where part of my family lives, has suffered more in recent weeks than many regions ever do. First it was the Pacaya volcano, which is about 15 miles from my family’s home in Guatemala City, the capital.

On May 27, Pacaya began erupting, blanketing the region with ash. Three children disappeared, and a television reporter, Anibal Arachila (left), died when he got too close to the volcano and was hit by a fiery shower of rocks. At least 1,600 people living in rural villages near the volcano had to be evacuated.



Workers sweep ash off Guatemala City streets.

Ash closed the international airport, and two to three inches piled up in streets of the capital, as well as on cars and buildings. “It was amazing walking through the streets covered with a black sand — like that at the seaport,” my former wife Ana Carolina wrote me a day after the eruptions began.

A worker cleans ash off a sidewalk in the capital.

Outside her house, Ana Carolina added, “there are bags and bags of ash — which are supposed to be picked up — on the pavement. We are so tired of cleaning the walkway to the house, and we haven’t cleaned the sidewalk around it.

In a rural area outside Guatemala City, a villager examines his home’s roof, which collapsed from the weight of falling ash.

“Two men spent hours cleaning ash off our roof,” Ana Carolina wrote, “and I do not think it is totally clean. A little ash continued to fall today.”

Guatemala’s second disaster came in the form of Tropical Storm Agatha, which struck the country only two days after Pacaya began erupting. At least 123 Guatemalans died from flooding and mudslides when the storm dumped more than three feet of rain on the country.

An additional 23 people died in neighboring El Salvador and Honduras. In Guatemala City, thousands of residents had to be evacuated because of the storm.

Particularly dramatic storm damage in Guatemala City. A sink hole 66 feet wide and roughly 300 feet deep opened up under a downtown intersection. A home and a three-story building, in which there was a security guard, dropped into it.

Guatemalan officials warned of ash from the volcano plugging drains and exacerbating flooding. Nonetheless, my 17-year-old stepdaughter Shaili wrote last Thursday, “the city is barely having any problems. We’re okay, but it’s heartbreaking to read the news. People in rural areas are suffering the most consequences.”

One of hundreds of collapsed bridges that have reduced travel in parts of Guatemala.

“Over 300 bridges have fallen down from all the rain,” Shaili wrote, “and it’s mostly because people [in charge of building them] are corrupt. Instead of using all the money for construction, they steal most of it and then they build mediocre bridges and roads. So there are many blockages around the country.

“Many people are homeless,” she added. Because Shaili is in her final year of high school, she is taking part in a year-long Seminario, which has unexpectedly ended up helping disaster victims.

“The third and last phase [of the Seminario] is called the ‘Investigation-action project,'” she explained, “and it is the most fun of the three. With the group you worked with during the second phase, you have to find a place to help. Usually it’s a public school.

“You go to the public school, making several visits. The first is a diagnosis, in which you detect which problem is the most important to deal with. On the other visits, you fix that problem. For example, you could fix desks, or make a yard for the kids to play in, or paint the walls. The Seminario students use the money that they have been saving up throughout the school year to pay for what they do.

Her Seminario project is the second time this year Shaili (center) has helped solve housing problems for Guatemala’s impoverished residents. Last April, she volunteered with Un Techo Para Mi Pais (A Shelter for My Country) to upgrade the homes of indigenous villagers.

“This year, the third phase [of the Seminario] was different because of Pacaya and Agatha,” Shaili wrote me this week. “The Ministry of Education let the whole grade work in a shelter instead of a school. We all went to a shelter near my school, and each group has been working on something different.

“Twenty-three families are living in the shelter. They lost everything. My group divided off areas for each family by creating temporary walls, so they can have their privacy. Another group bought them cooking utensils. Another group made a chicken pen, and they will give these families chickens, so the families can sell the eggs and have some money.

“In the end, we will go back to the place where we worked and see what impact we had. I’m Seminario president, so I’m in charge of making sure it all goes right. It’s a big responsibility, but I really enjoy it because I know that what we’re doing will help Guatemala.”