‘It was surreal’: On mission to Guatemala, locals witness volcano damage

Published 1:14 am Saturday, June 9, 2018

A group of Covington County residents found themselves in a traumatic situation while on a mission trip to Guatemala when a volcano erupted 15 miles away from where they were staying.

The country’s Fuego volcano erupted on June 3, emitting a pyroclastic flow — a fast-moving mixture of hot gas and volcanic rock that forms a toxic landslide, moving downhill at speeds between 30 and 90 miles per hour.

T.J. Kelley, who was among the local residents there, said Friday that their entire group was O.K., but the devastation of Guatemala is still on their hearts after returning to the United States Thursday.

There were 30 total in the group and 13 from Covington County; six from Bethany Baptist Church and seven from other churches in the county.

“Halfway through our trip, we went to church and after the service we heard a loud rumbling,” Kelley said. “This is my fifth trip so I knew that the volcano has erupted before, but never at this magnitude.”

Kelley said that as the group walked outside, the skies started to rain ash.

“It was raining as well, but the ash was mixing with the water so it was just completely black,” Kelley said. “We finally got back to our mission site and we immediately started stocking up on food, water and supplies to bring to the village people.”

Kelley said that the craziest thing he has heard is that the local officials in Guatemala had pronounced that people are still missing in the ashes.

“They pronounced that 100 people were dead,” Kelley said. “It was truly a national disaster. It is hard to see this type of stuff on the news at home, but when you are face to face, it suddenly becomes real. People are really hurting, and the only way to describe it is surreal.”

Kelley said that they were safe enough that they did not have to move shelter, but villagers closer to the volcano were still getting trapped in their homes.

“When something like this happens, the police tell the villagers that they need to get out immediately,” Kelley said. “But when they leave their homes, people start looting and stealing their belongings so they don’t want to leave and then they get trapped in their own houses.”

International Missions Association coordinates missions to Guatemala, and arranges for people from the village to cook for the groups while they are there.

“One of the cooks lost 23 loved ones to the volcano while we were there,” Kelley said. “So we were able to pray over her. It was so surreal, we are just lucky because there are so many people that were hurt.”

The initial goal of the mission trip was to build small houses for the villagers, Kelley said.

“We build homes for the poor,” Kelley said. “Nothing too big at all, but to them it is like we are building mansions. We start with a concrete floor and then add tin sidings and a tin roof. It’s about a 12 x 12 house, but they are so thankful for it.”

After the eruption all the group could do was clean what they had started and start delivering food, water and supplies to victims in need.

“We went to orphanages and we had two distribution centers to give everything that we could,” Kelley said. “They are just so appreciative of the little things and that is why I keep going back.”

Despite all of the devastation, Kelley said that the mission trip had its up sides.

“We were able to make a difference and I would absolutely do it again,” Kelley said. “The families need what we do and especially now more than ever.”

The International Missions Association will be working with their IMA team members that are permanent residents and locals in Guatemala for with the volcano disaster. If anyone would like to donate through the IMA they can send funds to 9255 McDonald Road, Citronelle, AL 36522. Checks can be made payable to IMA and it is tax deductible.

“We need to keep praying for these families,” Kelley said. “Real people are hurting.”