article

06.01.10

Will Sinkholes Swallow This City?

In Guatemala City, where a sinkhole swallowed a building, the ground has been crumbling for years—and now residents worry that nothing is holding them up at all.

In Guatemala City, where a sinkhole swallowed a building, the ground has been crumbling for years—and now residents worry that nothing is holding them up at all. PLUS, click here to read about 10 other bizarre natural disasters.

The residents of Ciudad Nueva, a middle-class neighborhood near downtown Guatemala City, thought they had it bad Friday morning, when they woke up to find their cars, streets, and backyards covered by toxic ash spewed by the nearby Pacaya volcano. They thought things couldn’t get worse on Saturday morning, when the country got hit by Tropical Storm Agatha. Then, at 8 p.m. on Saturday night, a seemingly bottomless hole opened in the earth and swallowed a chunk of their neighborhood.

Click the Image to View Our Gallery of Sinkhole Disasters

“I was sitting on the second floor when I felt a sudden thud shake my entire house,” says Karla Maldonado, who lives three blocks away from where the sinkhole swallowed an entire three-story building and, apparently, a security guard who was inside. “Some of my neighbors who live closer to the hole said it felt as if there was an earthquake.” An unidentified man told Guatemalan newspaper El Periodico that he had been walking with his brother when they heard a loud noise coming from the earth. Seconds later, his brother vanished into the ground. Other neighbors claim that they saw a taxi cab that was driving through the intersection disappear before their eyes.

The sinkhole is over 65 feet in diameter, almost perfectly round, and, according to some residents of the neighborhood, no surprise at all. City authorities blamed the tropical storm for the sinkhole. But some people in Ciudad Nueva say that the ground beneath their feet has been acting strangely for years. According to local newspaper reports, area residents have claimed that it feels hollow in certain places. A few years ago, when the city transformed a local park into a parking lot for trucks that transport heavy machinery, people complained that the vehicles were causing “micro-earthquakes” as they passed through. According to Karla Diaz, who lives 11 blocks from where the sinkhole occurred, “For years we’ve heard loud rumblings coming from the ground. People reported this, along with random holes that would pop up in the pavement, but no one ever came to investigate.”

Ciudad Nueva, meaning “New City,” was developed in the mid-20th century as an enclave of middle-class professionals and entrepreneurs. In the 1980s, the neighborhood fell out of fashion and entered a period of decline. It was neglected by city authorities for years, and over the past decade, residents say they began noticing signs of a shifting earth: cracks in their floors, fissures in their walls. Many reported hearing rumblings and other strange noises coming from under the ground.

The problems were stark enough that Karla Maldonado and other concerned neighbors started Ciudad Nueva Unete, a blog that documents the damage done to the neighborhood because of official neglect. Entries going as far back as 2008 show the neighborhood’s concern with the sudden appearance of small holes in the street. People complained that the city was just quietly filling them and pretending there was no larger problem. Under one of the pictures of the sinkhole, a caption asks: “Doesn’t this remind you of Barrio San Antonio?”

Barrio San Antonio is the neighborhood right next to Ciudad Nueva, and just happens to be the site of another, even bigger sinkhole that occurred 15 blocks from this one in 2007. At that time, residents of Ciudad Nueva worried that their neighborhood would be next, and now that they’ve been proven right, their anger at the city government has grown. “We used to worry that we would become the next Barrio San Antonio,” said Maldonado. “It is terrible living in this misery because the authorities won’t assume any responsibility. We even went to the government’s Human Rights Commission, but nothing happened.”

“The city is just doing what they know best, merely applying makeup to the streets,” reads a post on Maldonado’s blog. “Neighbors of Ciudad Nueva, get your act together!” implores a commenter on this post. “You cannot remain indifferent! This borders on being a human rights violation!”

According to Karla Diaz, who lives 11 blocks from where the sinkhole occurred, “For years we’ve heard loud rumblings coming from the ground.”

Guatemalan journalist Luis Figueroa posits the theory that the ground is becoming destabilized by the city’s aging sewerage system. In fact, the two giant sinkholes have both appeared along the same pipeline, a fact that has left people in the surrounding area terrified for their lives. “If there have now been two holes that have appeared along the same line, chances are there could be a third one developing elsewhere,” said Figueroa. “The municipal authorities in charge of maintaining the system should investigate to make sure people are safe.”

In the meantime, life in Ciudad Nueva for those who haven’t evacuated remains uneasy. “People have trouble sleeping, and everyone is talking about this all the time, says Maldonado. “Worry permeates the environment, and we can do nothing but wait and hope that the authorities will listen to us now."

Constantino Diaz-Duran has written for the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Orange County Register. He lives in Manhattan and is an avid Yankees fan. You'll find him on Twitter as @cddNY.