From Séptimo Sentido: Recovering from Tropical Storm 12-E Seven Years Later
Written by Valeria Guzmán for Séptimo Sentido, and translated by Cristosal. Photographs by Josué Guevara.
The 30 de Abril community in Arce City is home to 750 families that live on the margins of economic development. Just a few minutes away is a shopping center and some factories, but the houses in 30 de Abril don’t have potable water and only a few families have electricity. The community was formed after a storm in which hundreds of families lost their houses due to flooding. The improvements that they have achieved up to this point are not due to any government sponsored initiatives, but are instead products of their own determination to build a community.
“Thank God we were used to poverty, because without money you suffer,” is the only thing Eloísa Salguero said when she was asked about the period in which she had the best quality of life. Eloísa is a small, dark-skinned woman with gray hair. This particular morning she is annoyed because the lime tree she planted bore fruit, but is not yet tall enough to provide shade. The same goes for her almond trees. For this reason, she is embarrassed that she can’t invite us to chat under the shade of a tree, but instead has to invite us into the shade of her small house, made of aluminum sheets, where she lives with her daughter.
Eloísa knows that poverty doesn’t only mean struggling to find enough money for food. In her case, poverty also implies the possibility of encountering the Police Unit for Maintaining Public Order for occupying the territory where she now lives. That’s because the 30 de Abril community was formed when a group of citizens occupied a territory belonging to the Salvadoran Institute of Agrarian Transformation (ISTA) in 2012.
The usurpation of this territory was not a decision made on a whim. In October 2011, it didn’t stop raining for a whole week due to tropical storm 12-E. During the storm, it rained more than it did during Hurricane Mitch. At least 21 rivers overflowed and 30 deaths were recorded. Eloísa and her family almost lost their lives. She lived close to a river that overflowed and destroyed her previous home. That’s why she occupied part of this territory, to avoid living at risk and among the mud.
In the community where she now resides, internal organization has been vital. Several neighbors recalled that during their first few days there, the majority of families slept in the open air; people couldn’t stop coughing from the dust and were cold at night. Now, thanks to their organizing, the majority of them have managed to get deeds for the area they occupy and build homes made of aluminum sheets.
They live in the margins here, but residents talk about the future with hope. In it they imagine paved roads, potable water, street lights, and concrete houses. The situation here isn’t abnormal. According to the General Statistics and Census Directorate, at least 11% of Salvadorans live in buildings made of aluminum, mud walls, and thatched roofs.
The Storm that Formed a Community
Dolores is 33 years old, and works taking care of her daughters and community. In October 2011, she lived next to the Los Patos river with her husband, her daughters - all under the age of 10 - and her mother, Eloísa. Her husband worked in agriculture and was also in charge of taking care of a property and its buildings. As part of the deal, the owner of the land gave permission for him and his family to live there.
In El Salvador almost one half of families do not own a home. In 47.2% of households, people are renters, sharecroppers, or in other irregular situations, according to the last Multipurpose Housing Survey.
Despite the lack of amenities, Dolores remembers that they lived well in that house. On October 15, 2011 everything changed. That night, she heard the rain start to fall and thought it was a typical storm, nothing more. She didn’t know that with the approaching storm, it would rain more water than it did during Hurricane Mitch. The Los Patos river zone “is very isolated, we didn’t have a tv or anything, we couldn’t watch the news,” Dolores told us.
The Los Patos river divided Dolores’ house from the main street where buses and cars passed. To get to that street they used a bridge, but, around 8 that night, it disappeared. At first, Dolores thought it was thunder. Her husband went outside and confirmed one of her biggest fears: the bridge had fallen and the family was shut off from the main road.
A few minutes later, the river’s water level rose and flooded the house. Dolores and Eloísa placed the family’s clothes, plates, and dishes on the beds so they wouldn’t get wet. This failed. Within minutes, the water level rose so high it lifted the beds up. The neighbors started to call for Dolores and her family to leave the house, but they had no way to cross the river and get to safety. The family only managed to get out of the house and to a space a little higher up. They tried to find safety in what they described as a pig pen.
The property owner had raised pigs in previous years, and he had constructed a metal structure where the animals could eat. When the water kept rising, the adults put a mattress on top of the metal structure. They put the young children on the mattress and the adults kept the building from floating away all night while they prayed that the water wouldn’t keep rising. If it rained more, they thought that at least the children would have a chance of surviving.
The following morning, the family saw that there was a refrigerator floating in the water. The refrigerator had stopped working a while ago and they had left it on the patio. It occurred to Dolores’ husband that they could use it as a raft to cross the overflowing river. That’s how they transported Dolores, her mom, and her daughters. “When I was going across, it almost turned over in the deepest part of the river, but they grabbed me quickly and got me out,” recalled Dolores with a nervous laugh.
When they got to safety, Dolores’ family was taken to a shelter. There, she met other people who had experienced similar situations. The storm forced at least 50,000 people to evacuate nationally. When the sun came out again, some of the people affected confronted a new reality: they had lost their homes.
Dolores’ family spent five months trying to reconstruct their lives in the same place where they were almost tossed aside. They didn’t have anywhere else to go. Renting a house wasn’t a feasible option. Their daily struggle was to get the bare necessities again. “Remember that my husband worked in agriculture, so what could we do with the $40 he earned? Sometimes it wasn’t even enough for food, and buying dishes and clothing was already very difficult,” she explained.
On April 30, 2012, she heard that some of the other families affected by the same storm had taken over some land in an area that didn’t flood and in which no one lived. Her family got to the area, moved the few things they were able to salvage from the water and mud, and started building a temporary house out of wood, aluminum, and pieces of plastic. The residents say that when they got to this territory, the Police Unit for Maintaining Public Order appeared. It was then that the community first demonstrated its organizing capacity. According to an employee at the Arce City mayor’s office, one neighbor called the Human Rights Ombudsman and, through a non-violent mediation, the 176 families managed to remain in the area.
Organizing: The Key to Building a Community
Dolores recalls that the area didn’t have any vegetation, and “sometimes a storm would come and, since there were no trees to provide a barrier, it would break the plastic sheets we used as roofing, the wind would carry away our shacks, and we would have to start rebuilding from zero again.” Despite these problems, they preferred rebuilding over living next to the river.
This created the need for them to formally organize themselves. They created a community council and started to organize among themselves to get the deeds to the land they were occupying. A few months later, “the person in charge passed away, so we had another meeting with some friends in my house and we said, why don’t we organize among ourselves like other women’s groups?” Dolores tells us. In 2013, she was the president of her community’s women’s association. Once organized, the women began sending letters to the mayor’s office, certain NGOs, the Ministry of Governance, and ISTA to get help and legalize their living situation. The word spread and, in the next few months, more people arrived to live there until they made up a group of 700 families. Five years after the storm, in December 2016, the majority of the residents in 30 de Abril have received the deed to their house.
The women’s group didn’t only advocate formalized land ownership, they were also trained by other organizations to form a Community Civil Protection Committee. Additionally, they became a link between the mayor’s office and their neighbors whenever an issue arose. In case anything urgent happened, Dolores protected her community using a megaphone. She could activate the alarm on it whenever there was a community issue. When the alarm sounds, the organizers know they should go to Dolores’ house.
Vulnerability is Also an Economic Problem
Mayra is a pale, talkative woman who smiles a lot and tends to stay and chat under the tree in front of the soccer field. Within a few minutes of chatting, some ants fall from the tree branches, and she shakes them off and keeps talking.
Mayra’s husband works in a factory. She takes care of their home, and goes out a few days a week to work in Santa Tecla as a domestic worker to bring in more money for her family. She was also affected by tropical storm 12-E. She was Dolores’ neighbor and spent part of that night yelling at her from afar and waiting for a response or sound that confirmed that her friend was okay. “My house was made of aluminum and simple wood poles that we would find by the hills, and the bottom half of it was made of cement so that we wouldn’t be living in the dirt,” Mayra says while she shakes a pair of insects off of her. In this area, the majority of those affected by the storm were low-income.
Mauricio Quijano is the director of the Community Development Program at Cristosal and he supports projects in the area. He is one of the people who best understands the conditions under which they live. “Housing is precarious, the streets still flood when it rains, the dust storms are extreme, the heat is intense, and there is not a lot of vegetation,” he described from San Salvador.
Quijano understands the vulnerability to natural disasters of many Salvadorans as an issue that intersects with social class. The expert provides an example: “If there is a natural disaster, people are displaced. Why? Because the population that lives in this area is very vulnerable. But why do they live in vulnerable areas? Probably because of a lack of socioeconomic opportunities that prevent them from having access to a safe home.”
In 2009, El Salvador was named the country with the highest level of environmental vulnerability in the world. According to the Global Climate Risk Index, in 2016 El Salvador was number 116.
Mayra says that she returned to her old house after the storm. “I felt bad when I saw everything that people lost, such as pots, clothing, chickens, dogs, and cows.” What remained of her house was full of mud. Soon she bought detergent and cleaning supplies to try to save some of her belongings. Months later, she moved to the community with the same mattresses that had once been full of dirty water and mud.
“This type of displacement stems from natural disasters, a lack of socioeconomic opportunities, or even due to the violence seen all over the country,” Mauricio Quijano attested.
Mayra says that there are still some families who were affected by the 12-E storm living along the banks of the Los Patos river. She stated that they have not wanted to move to this area because “they’re not used to the life one might have here. They’re not used to suffering like this.”
The problems accumulate once you begin to build a home here. In addition to the basic needs required to live a dignified life, such as potable water and electricity for everyone, the surrounding neighbors perceive the community as unsafe. A few meters from where Mayra is talking, there are houses that no longer belong to 30 de Abril. There, a woman talks about how dangerous her neighbors are. She suspects that gang members live here. Community leaders assure us that you can walk through this area calmly. There is no gang graffiti on their houses.
Mauricio Quijano says that they face discrimination here because they live on the margins. “When we see poverty we tend to associate it with delinquency, even when that’s not necessarily true,” he states. The Director of the Community Development Program at Cristosal highlights the need for prevention: “30 de Abril is full of children that will be adolescents in five years, and if they continue facing problems relating to exclusion, poverty, precariousness, then we can talk about a population that is at risk, however saying that this population is at risk is not the same as stigmatizing them.”
The Current Gaps
It’s midday on a Thursday in January and Maria Rivera, 57 years old, has recently showered to start her day making tortillas. She has long, gray hair and when she talks she puts her hands in front of her face. It looks like she’s praying, although in reality she is talking about how much she owes to three separate banks.
“I borrowed $600 from one bank, $300 from another: that’s how I was able to build this little hut. Struggling, that’s how I did it. But now I’m indebted to three banks. I pay $31.25 at one. This coming Saturday I’ll pay $44, and the next I’ll pay $62,” she says before turning on the stove she uses to make tortillas.
Maria is not only worried about herself. She lives with her husband and she also takes care of three grandchildren because her daughter works in San Salvador. Her daughter helps her financially and visits once a week. “This is how I buy our meals - she says and points to her tortilla stand - with what I sell, I buy our food, and the money that comes from other family members goes towards paying the bank.”
Just for her debt, Maria pays the banks $137 a month. She took out these loans when she was trying to build her home. For example, she tells us that installing electricity cost $400. Additionally, she spends $10 a month just on drinking water. The water that she uses to shower, wash dishes, and do laundry comes from a well that the men in her family dug in a week. That water is contaminated because just a few meters away is the septic tank for the house. This is the norm in the community.
The President of the Women’s Association told us that the National Administration of Aqueducts and Public Fountains has tried to bring potable water to the area through the installation of public water taps. Despite this, no one trusts the quality of the water. “That water isn’t even good enough for plants,” says one resident. That’s why the majority of the residents depend on trucks that fill a container for $0.25 or $0.30.
The residents here have organized among themselves to access basic services. Just like how they borrowed money to bring electricity to their homes and streets, they have also fixed roads.
In November of last year, the Board of Directors and other representatives of the Women’s Association gathered to receive a group of journalists who were visiting the area. The neighbors took the chance to discuss, among other things, an issue that was affecting a number of people: a neighbor was throwing grey water onto the street instead of throwing it in his backyard. Here, social exclusion has made it clear that when there’s a need, the solution is in their own hands.
Starting from Scratch
The 4th of January was a very windy Thursday in the community. In the morning there was no rest, and the gales were constantly blowing up dust. Some neighbors chose to pull water from their wells and wet their patios. In the afternoon, the wind was still a problem.
Near Eloísa’s house, the woman who hopes that her trees grow soon to provide her with some shade, a home lost all of their belongings. It was a house made of aluminum and plastic sheets where a family with a three-year old daughter lived. In the afternoon, the girl’s mother lit her wood stove to cook some beans and a gust of wind carried a spark from the kitchen to the hallway where the family stored firewood. The wood caught fire, and soon the entire house was on fire.
If in 30 de Abril there is an issue getting water, you can imagine the lack of fire hydrants or cisterns nearby to put out the flames. Neighbors tried to put out the fire and in a photo from that day you can see them carrying water in metal containers they use to wash corn. A business in the area sent a water truck, but the help arrived too late. The next day, Dolores said that the neighbors organized themselves to gather clean clothes for those affected. Now she is sleeping in a neighbor’s house. Soon she will try to rebuild everything.