Flumes of ash and debris, hundreds of feet high and wide, engulfed the streets of communities surrounding Guatemala’s Volcan de Fuego as roughly 2000 citizens fled for their lives with hot ash trailing closely behind.
While most citizens escaped Volcan de Fuego’s path of destruction safely, hundreds did not.
“The death toll could have been much higher if citizens did not implement their evacuation training that the community received weeks before the eruption,” said Hugo Rodriguez, the response director of Coordinadora Nacional para la Reduccion de Desastres (a Guatemalan government agency devoted to disaster relief and planning).
In June 2018, Volcan de Fuego erupted suddenly. The eruption occurred only three weeks after the completion of a disaster relief training exercise known as Fuerzas Aliadas Humanitarias (FA-HUM) 2018 where the same communities that fell victim to the eruption participated in a simulated eruption and evacuation scenario.
“We have many audio and video materials that instruct the community’s leaders about the need to evacuate in addition to hands-on training for all citizens,” said Rodriguez. “Most of the communities that participated in the exercise did evacuate [during the June eruption] and very many lives were saved”.
Fuerzas Aliadas Humanitarias, which in English translates to Humanitarian Allied Forces, is an annual U.S. Army South-sponsored disaster relief exercise where governmental and non-governmental organizations from the United States, host nation and partnering nations coordinate their assets and capabilities to simulate disaster-relief efforts in a large-scale exercise.
“Through this exercise we gain the opportunity to share information, best practices and collaborate with other partner nations and strengthen our capabilities to respond to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief situations,” said Col. Brian Marzan, the co-director of FA-HUM 19 and Chief of the Training Exercise Division for U.S. Army South, at the opening ceremony of Fuerzas Aliadas Humanitarias 2019 in host-nation Dominican Republic.
Similar to the FA-HUM 19 exercise which was centered on a simulated volcano eruption, FA-HUM 19 simulations were tailored to real environmental threats to the Dominican Republic.
“We try to put into practice civil and military responses to emergencies that could affect our country,” said Brig. Gen. Juan Manuel Mendez Garcia, director of the Emergency Operations Center for the Dominican Republic, in a press conference where he called on Dominican Republic citizens to participate in the exercise.
“For us to be better prepared, we want to simulate an earthquake across the country,” said Mendez. “The emergency operations center calls on the Dominican Republic population of public and private organizations to practice their [earthquake] evacuation plans as well as download instructions on what to do before, during and after an earthquake.”
Local community involvement is vital to the success of FA-HUM exercises in years past, future and currently in the Dominican Republic for FA-HUM 19.
Similar to the scale and scope of the volcano evacuation scenarios in Guatemala, citizens in small provinces of the Dominican Republic participated in flood evacuation scenarios because of the area’s real-life risk of disastrous flooding.
“About 100 civilians from a small town near Bajo Yuna (a province in the Dominican Republic) boarded large buses with the help and coordination of the participating organizations as part of the disaster scenario,” said Daniela Mazuela Abad, a local resident, minister and community leader.
The areas where the simulated evacuations took place flood often when rain is consistent, she added.
The evacuated citizens were then transported to a local school, which was a part of the simulated scenario, Centro Educativo Los Guaraguaos near Bajo Yuna in the Dominican Republic.
The school could also be used in real times of disaster, said Angela Paula Polanco, a fourth grade teacher there.
“It is important for the school and its students to participate in the scenario because young students learn about the emergency-response systems and share that information with family and friends in the community who would benefit from this knowledge if it were needed,” Polanco added.
While all FA-HUM exercises focus on civilian involvement and education, interoperability between governmental and non-governmental organizations of the host nation is also a key focus.
At FA-HUM 18 in Guatemala, the Guatemalan Army, Navy, Air Force and non-governmental organizations like civilian transportation companies operated jointly.
“The Dominican Republic Ministry of Defense with the support of the Dominican Army, Air Force, Navy, Center of Emergency Operations and non-governmental organizations like the international Red Cross coordinated their disaster-response efforts throughout the exercise,” said Edwin Olivares, sub-director of the Emergency Operations Center for the Dominican Republic.
“FA-HUM has greatly strengthened our capabilities,” he added. “Our emergency-response organizations have successfully rehearsed and executed our disaster contingency plans.”
The collaboration between host-nation organizations at FA-HUM 19 is as equally important to the sharing of knowledge and coordination among multinational partners at all FA-HUM exercises.
“10 Latin American countries located in the South America and Caribbean Island region regularly participate in annual FA-HUM exercises by providing intellectual, civil or military assets during planning and execution of the exercises,” said Brig. Gen. Irene Zoppi, director for the Army Reserve engagement cell & deputy commanding general – Army Reserve for U.S. Army South.
At FA-HUM 19, over 100 disaster-relief subject matter experts from 13 Latin American countries participated in the exercise.
“Cooperating, having mutual respect for and understanding each nation’s subject matter experts promotes solidarity and maximizes our collective capabilities in responding to disasters,” she added. “It’s a mutual benefit and we want our partner nations to know the U.S. will be there whenever they need us.”
U.S. Army South and its partner Latin American nations have collaborated for 20 years and 2020’s FA-HUM exercise is currently set to occur in Costa Rica.
“We must continue to work together in partnership by broadening our perspective and learning from each other,” said Zoppi.
“The meaning of cooperation, collaboration and solidarity is all about harnessing the power of one. Juntos Podemos. Together We Can!”