In the early hours of May 31st, residents in the community of La Anona in San Luis La Herradura in El Salvador were wide awake. Like thousands of others across the country, families in cantón La Anona were at high risk. Wind and pouring rains from the passage of tropical storm Amanda reminded them that the fear of losing everything was all too real. Their proximity to a river meant that their homes, belongings, and local infrastructure were all in danger of flooding and damage.
The municipality, located in the department of La Paz, was one of thousands of areas heavily affected by torrential rains resulting from the storm. In La Anona, the intense downpour caused the nearby Comalapa River to overflow, and neighboring villages quickly flooded with water and mud. Like others in highly vulnerable areas, Sandra’s family home and belongings were destroyed.
“That same night we had to go out in search of a place to stay. The water came into our house. It was completely flooded,” she told the Red Cross. The following day, Sandra and her family reallocated to a temporary shelter in a nearby school. According to El Salvador’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARN), over 1,281 people had to evacuate their homes and were placed in government shelters, where social distancing guidelines have been difficult to follow.
In the country’s capital of San Salvador, Gerson Alexander Vásquez and his family were sheltered in a school after having to flee in the middle of the night. Like Sandra and thousands of others, the flooding caused by the storm made their home “uninhabitable.”
“We try to keep smiling for the children so they do not see the pain we feel,” he told a reporter for the World Food Program. “It’s hard to be thrown out onto the streets, but we are grateful we all managed to get out alive.”
On June 1st, El Salvador’s president Nayib Bukele declared a 15-day national emergency following the devastating impacts of tropical storm Amanda, and later, Cristobal. Since May 30th, Amanda had produced torrential rains from southern Mexico to the Costa Rica-Panama border. From the remnants of tropical storm Amanda, the tropical depression Cristobal formed on June 4th in quick succession, causing substantial damage due to flash flooding, landslides, collapses, and strong winds. According to a report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 149,000 people were directly affected. It is estimated that the storm caused around $8 million worth of infrastructure damage, including roads and bridges, and damage to 537 schools. Additionally, $22.1 million worth of grain, fruit, and other crops were lost, a strong blow to small and subsistence farmers. 30 lives were lost to the storms. While the government continues to assess and evaluate damages, it is believed that over 330,000 people are facing aggravated food insecurity due to the effects of the storms and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Among the most affected areas in El Salvador are the departments of San Salvador, San Miguel, La Libertad, and Santa Ana.
A double crisis
It has been a tough year for El Salvador. While occasional storms during the Central American rainy season are not uncommon, the impacts of the pandemic coupled with one of the strongest storms in years has profoundly affected the livelihoods of thousands of people. The double crisis has exacerbated issues of poverty and food scarcity.
President Nayib Bukele imposed strict restrictions in Latin America in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, the millennial president enacted early measures to curb the spread of the virus, declaring a mandatory national quarantine on March 11th that lasted 21 days. During this time, schools were closed, classes suspended, and foreign entry to the country was prohibited. Bukele also announced that hundreds of thousands of citizens would receive a $300 USD bonus to compensate for their lack of income during the crisis, especially those who engage in informal trade. A subsidy has been highly needed, given that in El Salvador, two-thirds of total estimated employment is within the informal economy.
The early action on the part of the government deferred the arrival of the virus to the country, as the first case was reported on March 18th. While many Salvadorans praised the central government for their quick and firm response, controversy arose when Bukele announced that the military would arrest anyone who violated the new measures, sending thousands to government “quarantine centers.”
The challenges posed by the ongoing COVID crisis– loss of income, government suspension of mobility and public transportation, inadequate access to medical and sanitary resources, in addition to devastating impacts of the storms have revealed long-standing issues of vulnerability and inequality and intensified the urgent need for humanitarian aid.
Most shockingly, the WFP estimates that in the municipalities hardest hit by the storms, there are 350,000 food-insecure people. Now more than ever, immediate relief is needed.
While President Bukele has committed to distributing food parcels and humanitarian aid across the country, resources have been stretched and the impacted coordination among central and local governments has left thousands in a state of vulnerability. From the beginning of the pandemic, Salvadorans in desperate need of food and other supplies took to the streets, waving white flags or cloth as a way to signal to neighbors and those passing by for help. These white flags are not a symbol of defeat, but rather a call for help– a call to action.
In an Instagram live talk titled, “Building Transformative Solidarity,” Salvadoran-American journalist, Daniel Alvarenga spoke with Fran Omar, a member of Fuerza Estudiantil El Salvador (FES) about the current situation in the country in the aftermath of the storms.
“Generally speaking, the country finds itself in a state of vulnerability that has also been a product of economic exclusion, of social exclusion. This has caused, for example, urban areas in some zones in which people have settled out of necessity,” Omar shared with the live audience. “It’s not because in reality they want to live next to a cliff or because they want to live next to a river.”
The current situations have certainly exposed this reality. The truth of the matter is that for many people, their options are limited by economic need, by geographical conditions, and by many other factors.
Muchos de los daños en infraestructura se deben a condiciones heredadas. Muchas personas viven en vulnerabilidad pues nunca han tenido las condiciones adecuadas y viven en zonas de alto riesgo porque ningún gobierno anterior les ofreció soluciones integrales.
— Casa Presidencial (@PresidenciaSV) June 5, 2020
On Twitter, the presidency of El Salvador accredited much of the damage to infrastructure to “inherited conditions,” stating “Many people live in vulnerability because they have never had [adequate] conditions and live in high-risk areas because no previous government offered them comprehensive solutions.”
Many replied that these have been the conditions for decades, that it is nothing new. So, what do comprehensive solutions look like?
The will of the people
Thousands of people in El Salvador who are without food and medical supplies await the urgent delivery of state aid. Despite intense difficulties of confronting a double crisis, community leaders, youth groups, and every day people are taking it upon themselves to organize resources and deliver aid on behalf of their communities. The crisis has demonstrated that no matter the circumstances, resilience is possible when people work together.
In the city of Santa Ana, local community leaders, NGOs, student organizations, and various sectors of society have banded together to provide humanitarian aid for the most affected communities. Earlier this month, I spoke with Julio Roberto Hernandez, president of NGO, Acción Santa Ana, who has been organizing efforts on the ground in Santa Ana to provide assistance and various types of resources for those in need.
Our conversation highlighted how the current crisis and long-standing issues of vulnerability and inequality are not separate issues. Communities and local governments can address social issues and find creative solutions to create positive, sustainable change for the city and its people. Sustainable development is one of the key axes of Acción’s work. Ultimately, these changes can improve standards of living for residents and increase citizen participation in local governments to address the needs of the people.
Amidst the circumstances of a global pandemic and the arrival of Tropical storms, Amanda and Cristobal, Julio spoke to me about the ways in which Acción has had to adapt to these situations and figure out solutions to communities’ pressing needs.
“Acción is an acronym for Association Pro-Citizen Construction and Normative Order. Part of our work involves the legislation of the city, in how we as citizens should have certain rights, services, and conditions that favor us… that generate pedestrian mobility, that generate accessibility, that are places where we can prevent risks, where we can prevent gender violence, situational violence, even mitigation of urban risks… The work we do is very comprehensive.”
Prior to the pandemic and the storms, Acción had been working on a variety of projects. Many initiatives have been focused on the intervention of public spaces, rooted in community needs. The United Nations Sustainable Development Objectives (UN SDGs) has been a guiding factor in their work.
“A Walking City, as we call it,” Julio told me, “encompasses intervention in public spaces: reconstruction, recovery, revitalization of abandoned spaces or places that may be prone to violence, crime, criminality, etc. We have another [project] called Urban Ecology for the recovery [and promotion] of green areas. We also find ways to take initiatives that are in urban areas to rural areas, to communities that can replicate them.”
Recently, Acción had been working on a project called, A Space for All, a “space for all people,” Julio explained. “When we look for a site in which to intervene, at the end of our intervention work, that site must be a place with universal access for everyone: for the elderly, for children, for adults, for women, etc… to help prevent gender violence, a space that can host and encourage cultural events and encounters, etc.”
When the pandemic began, the strict quarantine and national conditions left Julio and the organization stumped.
“We were stuck asking ourselves: ‘What can we do?’ We couldn’t go out into the street, we couldn’t do practically anything. So, we sat down and said “let’s rebuild.” We understood that many people were having a really hard time due to the pandemic, and later with the storms, the situation became even worse. After that, we realized that we could acquire permission to do humanitarian aid, to be out in the streets and in traffic. Here in El Salvador, the government was very strict about how people could transit in the streets. So, we received permission and started to organize and collect humanitarian aid.”
Using his position as president of the NGO, along with his background in organizational law, Julio and Acción were able to work around government quarantine restrictions to gather resources for the most affected communities in Santa Ana. Ultimately, as an organization that has been doing work to address community needs in urban and rural areas of Santa Ana, leveraging their ability to be out in traffic and to organize resources for those experiencing difficulties in the aftermath of the storms did not fall far from Acción’s line of work. Shifting their focus to humanitarian aid became Acción’s top priority in the current crisis, and Julio credits the power of social media in helping them achieve their goal.
“We started a campaign called Help from Home and we sent out publications on social media, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and said ‘If you want to help us, tell us where you live and we will go pick up what you can offer, organize it and figure out how best to distribute it.’ It was truly incredible when we started this campaign, in a matter of 4 or 5 days, we were able to collect around half a ton of clothes, around 250 food baskets, we collected beds, kitchenware, mattresses, and that’s how it started. In a matter of a week.”
Organizing volunteer efforts is not something Acción could do alone. Various sectors of society, from small business owners, academic institutions, to everyday people wanting to help their communities, came together for their beloved Santa Ana and their neighbors. With the support of University of El Salvador, Acción team members evaluated areas and communities which had been most affected in Santa Ana. With a solid understanding of the urgency of immediate needs, they gathered and organized donations to distribute.
Julio contextualized their volunteer efforts, explaining how they chose which areas to provide aid to: “The areas that have been most affected are the cantones and caseríos, which are areas that are considered rural. There is a lot of rural territory in Santa Ana that is very high-risk, geographically speaking, and also due to the theme of gangs. One can make a map of the areas where it is most urgent to help, where the government has not yet gone, the central government as well as the local government have not responded to these areas. This is where we were able to sit down with the University of El Salvador, who have helped us a lot, and said ‘These are the areas where we have to go.’ From there, we started to collect help through, Acción.”
“Today, we are a self-supporting group, we survive off of contributions, from what we’re able to acquire and donations. So, the results were really incredible, to see how the community, just from a Facebook post, were able to write to us saying ‘I have this amount of clothes, this much food, and these items that I can contribute.’ Still, we’re receiving multiple messages a day with offers for donations and the work continues,” Julio told me, with a smile.
“We have been working to deliver meals to group homes and hostels, which can be small living spaces or rooms inside of the city where up to 3-4 people can be living with low incomes and limited resources. We’re bringing this to try and alleviate some of the difficulties and needs that these communities and families may have while the economy reactivates, or as a type of subsidy,” Julio explained.
“Every day as a volunteer is different in the sense that you don’t know who can help and you don’t know who you’ll help that day. It becomes a very gratifying experience because suddenly someone who owns a business writes to you and says: “I can help you with this much,” or someone who may not be in the best situation financially still offers to help. So, it is very rewarding to see how together we can work together.”
After our conversation, I was reminded of a quote I heard from Balmore Membreño, an organizer from the LA chapter of CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) during the “Building Transformative Solidarity” live conversation.
“I think that it has been shown that sometimes the functionality of the government doesn’t meet the needs of the pueblo within their priorities… However, for me, it is more effective and much more gratifying that we do it, that we contrive ways to change these situations in El Salvador because at the end of the day, we are the ones who understand the conditions.”
In times of quarantine, it is easy to feel disconnected from friends, family, neighbors, and community members. In the wake of two storms of unprecedented severity, community-led solutions are proving to be the most impactful. As El Salvador adapts to a new normality, community support is paving the way for more long-term, sustainable efforts to address issues of vulnerability.
If you would like to provide financial support for those affected by the national situation in El Salvador, below are some resources:
Uno x Uno is a group of young people organizing to help those most affected by the storms and COVID-19.
Es x Vos is fundraising to help families access basic necessities in El Salvador.
Antiguo x Antiguo is raising money to support those in need in the municipality of Antiguo Cuscatlán.
Voluntarios 2020 El Salvador is providing assistance with basic necessities to families affected by COVID-19 and the tropical storms in San Salvador.
Solidariton “Juntos Somos Fuertes” is lending support to various communities in El Salvador through solidarity baskets of food and medical resources.
Fusate is seeking donations to help vulnerable elderly communities access basic resources.
Niñez con Futuro is raising funds to support children and families with low resources.
Featured Image Credits: Flooding caused by Tropical Storm Amanda in the community of La Málaga. Photo: Courtesy of El Salvador Perspectives
Dani Garcia | Pitzer College
Daniela García is a rising junior at Pitzer College majoring in Critical Global Studies with a minor in Foreign Languages. She was born and raised in San Francisco’s Mission District to two immigrant parents from Jalisco, México. Daniela is passionate about issues related to human rights, sustainable development, and social justice throughout the Global South. As a Latin American correspondent for Ecuador, El Salvador, and Brazil, she hopes to explore how local communities are building power and responding to current challenges. In addition, she aims to highlight the stories of women, afro-descendants, LGBTQ+ and indigenous communities in these regions, while building transnational solidarity and connections.