Local-Led Response to Storm Eta in Guatemala

18 November, 2020

Jaime Rhemrev

Jaime Rhemrev, IsraAID Guatemala Country Director, shares her insight as emergency response efforts launch following Storm Eta and Hurricane Iota.

Storm Eta struck Guatemala last week, causing overwhelming damage to many communities across the country and affecting some 200,000 people with heavy rains, flooding, and mudslides, and claiming the lives of 150 people. Our team here in Guatemala immediately began preparing to respond in the Alta Verapaz Department, one of the most severely affected areas. Hurricane Iota made landfall just days later — exacerbating response efforts and causing additional destruction.

I’ve responded to a lot of emergencies with IsraAID over the last years: in Peru, Mexico, Ecuador, and even in Guatemala in 2018 when we first opened our office here after the Volcan de Fuego erupted and displaced entire communities. However, this emergency response is quite different amid the ongoing pandemic, as we need to rely more heavily on our in-country capacity and our local teams, partners, and resources. In the past, emergency response teams arrived from Israel to support with interventions in the fields of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene; in administering Psychological First Aid and providing other forms of Psychosocial Support; and address the immediate medical needs on the ground. Naturally, this is far less possible today. It’s more complicated getting staff to the affected area. This is one of the main challenges facing humanitarian aid practitioners around the globe.

Our small staff in Guatemala, however, has been active here on the ground in the Escuintla Department for the last two years. This means that we already have a strong staff who know how to work together, who know IsraAID’s unique approach to addressing humanitarian gaps, and who know the country, the culture, the language, the people, and are deeply motivated and integrally connected to providing assistance. This is where our added value lies as an organization. We invest deeply in national staff, in building strong regional hubs — which is both extremely important and yields higher impact — but has also proven absolutely vital during COVID-19. This facilitates our agility, our efficiency, and our commitment to build back better.

For example, Benjamin, our Protection Coordinator. Over the last years, he has led IsraAID’s Disaster Risk Reduction programming with local Emergency Management authorities to ensure that vulnerable communities have an emergency plan and know what to do should crisis strike. As soon as the storm hit, Benjamin was already on the phone with CONRED — the national agency leading emergency response efforts — which significantly streamlined our response. He already knew the actors, who was responsible for what, and how the system works. This is invaluable information in an emergency, where responding as fast as possible is of the utmost importance.

In addition to Benjamin, we have Eric, our Program Manager who also happens to be a medical doctor and is heading up our medical response. We have Amarilis, who is IsraAID Guatemala’s longest-standing team member, and has been leading our Child Protection programming, bringing with her a wealth of experience supporting children and their specific needs. We have Pablo, our local photographer who inherently understands the context and is essential to our communication efforts to ensure that the world knows what is ongoing in Guatemala, so that they can offer support. This is critical especially during these times, as so much of the media is distracted by other issues.

IsraAID’s commitment to working closely with local communities makes this all possible. A majority of IsraAID’s staff around the globe are from beneficiary communities themselves, because they know the challenges, they know the culture, and they can help lead interventions to ensure they are the most effective.

For me, this was the first time responding to an emergency while already being in-country, but IsraAID’s teams have been doing it for years, well before the COVID-19 pandemic posed a considerable challenge to sending aid workers. This included responding to mudslides in Sierra Leone’s capital city in 2017; responding to the earthquakes in Puerto Rico in January 2020; in Nepal, Greece, Vanuatu, and so many others. This experience is confirming what IsraAID’s been prioritizing for years: building back better starts with the communities themselves.

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