Disaster Relief

Disaster Relief: How Good, to be in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

Wherever we drive through the shanty towns the groups of people and families we pass all call out to us “aaaagua, aaaaaagua”. The floods have destroyed the water pipes in the shanty towns which have them, which means the water trucks which usually serve the other shanty towns are stretched pretty thin. Trujillo is the nearest big city, about 30 minutes away by bus, and for a few days was completely cut off from us. We visited one day later this week to pick up supplies from the market to take back to the shanty towns – houses need mould cleaning out and roofs refitting. Driving back the stench was potent with piles of rubbish against the side of the street left and for the bin lorries which aren’t running. Up in El Milagro huge sections of houses and road have been ripped away and sewage flows down the roadside. And worst of all is Victor Raul which has been turned into a wasteland, the whole area is now clearly an ex-riverbed with clean rocks lying around and patches of sand have been given that undulating texture from the water. A few random walls and doors pepper the landscape with most stuff having been washed away, it puts one in mind of the more barren scenes of Full Metal Jacket. I picked up a brick from a collapsed wall which I could snap and crumble in my hand, they’re just mud which has been baked in the sun.

 Disaster Relief

El Milagro and Victor Raul are the hardest hit, they sit below the quarry which burst to release the torrent, but the water has to go through them before it makes it to the dry river which guides it past El Cerrito, Las Lomas and Huanchaco. They are areas not fit for buildings of any sort, except that it’s the only spot affordable for some. Families have put up some form of shelter since the flood in the form of branches holding up tarpaulin, that’s where they spend their time now. A lot of the rubbish lying around was very similar to the type of stuff we were clearing off the beach down in Huanchaco.

We started the week shoveling a lot of mud from the seafront, and diggers came in to clear up the beach properly. The businesses are approaching the point where they might be able to open but no one is using the beach and the seafront in general is very low on activity compared to its usual self. We reopened La Rampa, a small skate park in El Cerrito which is open during the summer holidays to keep the kids busy so they don’t fall into crime and the parents can go to work. I put in a couple of shifts there in the morning, just keeping an eye on the kids.

Later in the week one of the teachers in Las Lomas had managed to get in touch with other families in the area and find out their needs. We took up three big rolls of tarpaulin and cut it into 10 meter strips, one for each family. They told us what was going on and we wrote down a list of what we’d need to buy from the disaster relief fund to help them out. A lot of houses needed cleaning and a lot of roofs rebuilding. Seven families had crowded into one house because their own house is no longer adequate for even the most basic form of living.

Disaster Relief

The next day a couple of us jumped into a car with some of the guys who run one of the surf schools down on the front. We got whisked up to El Milagro where we helped a family move house. Behind the stuff we moved there was a lot of damp, and huge cockroaches running around. We piled their stuff into a truck which had arrived, then opened up the side of the truck where there were maybe 100 2.5 litre water bottles which we dished out. That was some of the best work I’ve ever done. It felt pretty incredible to just be able to pick up something of high value and hand it out for free. The families were all so grateful and as soon as we started handing them out people started running towards the truck from all the surrounding roads.

Disaster Relief

The truck drove around the corner and down the road to another house where the family was going to stay. As we moved their stuff in the kids were running round exploring their new space, which gave the whole thing a faintly “new home” feeling to it. The next stop was to a restaurant on the outskirts of Trujillo where we marched straight to the kitchen and started packing boxes of food: three scoops of rice, two of lentils and one piece of chicken. The plan was to take these up to Victor Raul to hand them out. We were a bit late for lunch from previous work and I was surprised to find that a lot of the people had already eaten. The aid operations were now getting enough money and enough people to make a serious dent in these people’s requirements. But this could not be guaranteed for the next day or the day after, nor could it be guaranteed for water and clothing. Getting everything back to normal could take months or years, so we need to keep the operation flowing. In order for us to continue to help these families please donate what you can at

We never really knew what was going on, people just started doing stuff and we joined in. And we never really knew what was coming next, we just got driven somewhere and the same thing happened again. It reminded me a lot of working on a festival I used to help construct during summers. Don’t ask too many questions just get stuck in: pick that up, move that over there, hammer that nail in, fix that thing, help them do that. People are willing and dedicated and enjoy being able to help and patient and kind and it’s all, all, all simply because that’s what’s required. Having worked in “business” for five years I don’t think I could point to a single time when someone decided to be decent or kind simply for it’s own sake, the environment is driven by and for self-interest. There might be the exception of some acts during one or two redundancy processes but that’s about it, and that’s hardly a situation which occurs regularly or is to be aspired to. Here feels like working with the best of the best; not necessarily the best people from among the best people since no one was selected for this work; but the best traits of the best people.

On Sunday we gave ourselves a lie-in, everyone had been working all week – very hot and very manual work and one or two had become ill through exhaustion. In the afternoon we jumped back into a car with the guys from the surf shop, they had filled 20-30 20 litre bidons of water, and had a huge 2500 litre tank on their truck which we took to be filled up. The water in the bidons was for drinking and the water in the tank for washing since it wasn’t clean enough to drink. We drove around to a few different spots in Victor Raul and poured it into whatever receptacle people handed us, then helped people carry their full buckets of water to wherever they were living. Some of the mothers wanted to take pictures of their babies with us. We filled up the tank again to deliver to a couple of other spots, and then joined another group of volunteers as the sun set to hand out the food and drinking water they had brought.

Disaster Relief

It will be a transition back to normality, and seemingly over a long stretch of time. The buses aren’t running between cities. I am set to head north to Mancora and then Ecuador on 10th April but if that’s not possible I’ll be happy to stay and help for a few more weeks. We know of more houses which need roofs and have plenty of tarpaulin to help fix them. But news can travel slowly so it may take a while for us to find out everything that needs doing. At the same time water and food and clothes are still required daily in the shanty towns.

We had a session with the assistant managers on disaster relief and the psychological and physical effects of being involved in this kind of thing. What struck is how long this will last: after a disaster hits comes the heroic phase, where everyone rushes to save lives, then there’s the honeymoon period where aid and altruism are still high. After that comes the long hard months and years of readjustment, rebuilding and accepting a new reality. None of us will be here long enough to see this all through and Otra Cosa has a good supply of volunteers all year round. So we must do our bit and hand over the baton. We’re currently in the honeymoon phase: long, hard work and lots of it, but these shanty towns will be in ruin for a long time to come. We have to keep an eye on ourselves to watch for signs of stress, exhaustion and much else. We’ve already done a pretty bad job of that in the last week so now is time to settle into a routine of helping inch things closer to a new normality, though we don’t know what that will look like.

Written by Ben Allen. Original blog on

Otra Cosa Network are currently raising money to provide relief for the flood victims in and around Huanchaco. Please donate what you can at All money raised will go to food, water and building materials for locals. Thank you!

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