A record-breaking deluge Saturday nightheralded four days of rain that flooded hundredsof communities on the Caribbean slope, forcingthousands from their homes and thousands ofothers onto their rooftops to escape the risingwater.Four people died, and a family of five was stillmissing at press time.As the rains slowed and water receded, some of themore than 8,500 people in 80 temporary shelters beganreturning to their homes – those left standing – andsearching riverbanks for furniture and appliances thecurrent swept away.Sofas, mattresses and clothes were laid out to dry inyards, as officials from the National EmergencyCommission (CNE) assessed the damage in the 200affected communities.ACCORDING to preliminary information, 59bridges and 800 houses are severely damaged or collapsed,19 health clinics, 10 dikes, 57 stretches of highways,seven aqueducts and one sewer system are damaged,and more than 3,000 hectares of crops – mostly banana fields – suffered heavy losses aswell.While tragic, the human toll of four –two children and two adults, three ofwhom died by drowning and one adultwho died inside his house when it collapsed– is a small loss of life consideringthe immensity of land area affected, emergencycommission president Luis DiegoMorales said.The government of both Costa Ricaand Panama declared states of emergencyin the affected areas: including both sidesof the border in the Sixaola River region ofthe Caribbean coast. Panama reported onedead, two missing and 7,500 evacuated totemporary shelters, mostly in the northeasternregion.HUNGER and thirst nag people inremote communities where wells are contaminatedand roads are destroyed.Costa Rican Red Cross rescue teams,police, the Coast Guard and emergencyofficials worked around the clock thisweek to deliver 69 metric tons of food and28,000 liters of water per day to flood victims,especially in remote areas south ofthe port city of Limón, in an effort onepolice authority qualified as “titanic.”Emegency workers used helicopters todeliver supplies to the most inaccesibleregions.In response to the accusation that governmentresponse was tardy, leaving peoplestranded on their rooftops, Morales defendedthe emergency commission’s preparedness– all of the food, blankets and supplieswere stocked, and it issued warnings toevacuate flood-prone areas, he said, but thecall was ignored and people stayed withtheir possessions, climbing onto rooftopsand into trees to escape the rising water.RAINFALL reached record levelsSaturday at the National MeteorologicalInstitute’s checkpoint in the Caribbean portcity Limón, when 344.5 millimeters fell in24 hours. In one day, the downpour surpassedthe average rainfall for the monthby more than 40 millimeters and broke the1970 record for rainfall in one day in aJanuary, which was 279 mm, according tometeorologist Norman Vega.Wendy Strebe, a hotel owner in PuertoViejo de Talamanca, on the southernCaribbean coast, wrote The Tico Timessaying she saw flooded homes, rescuesmade in canoes, and rivers running 25 feethigher than usual.“People who have lived here all oftheir lives say they have never seen somuch rain,” she wrote.ECONOMIC damages could exceed¢9 billion (nearly $20 million), includingaid to families, road and bridge repair, andruined crops, President Abel Pacheco saidTuesday, after signing an emergencydecree that diverts government funds to therescue and clean-up efforts.The emergency expense budget wasdrained in the aftermath of lastNovember’s magnitude 6.2 earthquake onthe central Pacific coast – the biggest in adecade (TT, Nov. 26, 2004).Predictably, the President leaped at theopportunity to link a money issue to theambitious tax plan stalled in Congress.“These (floods) show us, once again,that if this country does not pass the fiscalplan, Costa Rica has no future… and it’s allbecause of egotists in the LegislativeAssembly,” he said. “I don’t know whatthose who have blocked the tax plan thinkwhen they see those families in Limón.”THE water rose above the first storywalls of homes and businesses in riverbasins and destroyed or carried away theoften already-meager belongings. Somefamilies lost everything but the clothesthey were wearing.During a Tico Times visit Tuesday toSarapiquí, a heavily affected area in thenortheastern plains about 80 kilometersfrom San José, residents stood on tip-toeand reached above their heads to indicatethe high water mark on their walls after theflood receded.In the Naranjales flood plains outsidePuerto Viejo de Sarapiquí, it is difficult todistinguish flood damage from the moreprolonged devastation of intense poverty.There, community halls, civic centers,gymnasiums, churches, and clinics wereconverted into makeshift dormitories.DR. Daniel Irigoyen is one of severalstate-funded doctors who made rounds to theshelters. Diarrhea, caused by sub-par sanitaryconditions in the overcrowded shelters,was one of the most common problems hetreated, he told The Tico Times.For two days after the initial downpour,the Sarapiquí region was underwater.Fernando Rodríguez, Red Cross chief oftransportation, drove a massive truckthrough high water while supporting rescueteams in motorboats that moved peoplestranded by the water to the shelters.They conducted some of the 135 rescuescarried out by the Red Cross aroundthe country this week. By Monday, whenthe currents began to slow, rivers depositedfurniture, appliances, dead pigs and cattlealong their shores, said Rodríguez.On Wednesday, residents began leavingthe shelters as authorities deemed theconditions safe for return to their homes,but in many cases, only partial walls and aroof were left. At press time yesterday,3,900 people remained in 40 shelters.WHILE the floods caused a last-minutechange of plans for an unknown number ofvisitors to the southern Caribbean coast, theeffects on the region’s tourism were minimal,according to area hotel owners.“We had some flooding here, but neverin a way that posed any health hazards,” saidEddie Ryan, vice-president of the PuertoViejo Chamber of Tourism and owner of thehotel La Costa de Papito, just outside town.Flooding in neighboring areas put theroads to Puerto Viejo out of commission,according to Ryan, so tourists trying to getto Puerto Viejo had to put off their plans.However, since those already in PuertoViejo couldn’t leave, hotel occupancyrates stayed constant.Mauro Marchiori, who with his wifeGloria owns the hotel Escape Caribeñonear Puerto Viejo, said some gung-hotourists even waded through flooded portionsof the road from Limón to get to townwhen buses couldn’t pass.La Nación reported Tuesday that sometourists in harder-hit areas such as thetown of Penshurst were evacuated in boatsbecause of the high water levels, but thatall appeared to be in good spirits.PRESIDENT Pacheco toured Sarapiquíon Wednesday, and visited two areashelters to express solidarity with the victims.“It gives us great hope that thePresident has come. We were waiting,because we are here with nothing, justwhat we are given. It means a lot that thePresident is worried about us,” saidAdelina Aguilar, a resident of Naranjaleswho lost all her belongings to the flood.Lidier Esquivel, the emergency commission’schief of prevention, said thecommission has been pushing for years tokeep people from building in flood zones.FOR the past five years, for example,the construction of public buildings in theflood plain of the Sixaola River has beenprohibited.The problem is the communities are ina flood plain, and moving entire townswould be costly.“I don’t think we have the resources toconfront a problem like that in Sixaola,”Esquivel said. “We would need internationalfunding.”(Tico Times reporter Katherine Stanley contributed to this report.)How to HelpTHE Red Cross is accepting donationsof clothes, blankets, diapers andnon-perishable foods such as cannedfoods, rice and beans, and powderedmilk. Monetary donations can bedeposited into the following Red Crossaccounts: Banco Popular 5000-8, BancoNacional 100100-7, Banco de CostaRica 176003-3 (for colones) and 204-6(for dollars). For more information call233-7033.
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