ATENAS, Alajuela – Unforgiving rain at the height of Costa Rica’s wet season racked the country this week, forcing thousands to seek refuge, taking lives, demolishing infrastructure and prompting the government to declare a state of emergency Wednesday.
The death toll from flooding and landslides caused by unrelenting downpours reached 18 this week, including 14 who died when a mudslide wiped out an entire hillside neighborhood in the western Central Valley coffee town of Atenas last week. At least four others died in flash flooding and while attempting to cross rivers.
“We’re seeing things we’ve never seen before,” National Emergency Commission (CNE) President Daniel Gallardo told The Tico Times Tuesday.
Some 15,000 people were affected as 4,000 homes were damaged or flooded, mostly in the northwestern region of Guanacaste and the central Pacific.About 2,000 fled to shelters while others sought shelter with family and friends. While many women and children fled, Gallardo said, many men stayed in their flooded homes to protect their property from thieves.
A confluence of factors, ranging from deforestation and urbanization, that have made for less absorbent soil, as well as climate change, have come together to make for the most disastrously rainy October in three decades.
Not counting hurricanes, it’s the rainiest year in 30 years, according to Gallardo.
As residents waded around in waist-high water in Guanacaste and the central Pacific, Public Works and Transport Minister (MOPT) Karla González made preliminary estimates that damage to roads could top $11 million. Some 27 highways and 22 bridges were damaged this week, and though MOPT workers cleared and repaired most of them, some stretches of highway were still impassable by week’s end, such as a 50-meter chunk of theInter-American Highway
that was wiped away by a landslide in the Southern Zone.
But much damage is yet to be seen, she said.
“One of the biggest problems we’re confronting is that with water persisting in flooding areas, it makes the emergency attention much more complex,”González told The Tico Times Wednesday after signing along with President Oscar Arias an emergency decree to expedite help to flooded areas.
Earlier in the week, Arias had visited Guancaste’s capital, Liberia, to announce the government’s purchase of $1.5 million in street-repair equipment, the first investment in such equipment the government has made in a decade.
“It’s a painful day knowing that thousands of Guanacastecos have been victims to acts of nature,” Arias said during his visit.
The weather also slammed Juan Santamaría International airport, just outside of San José, where some 40 flights were cancelled due to low visibility.
Meteorologists explained that several climate factors swirled together causing the torrential downpours – the height of the rainy season, a low-pressure system to the north and tropical depressions battering Costa Rica from the Caribbean.
Meteorologist Louis Alvarado speculated that climate phenomenon dubbed La Niña, an extensive cooling of the central and eastern Pacific that encourages wet weather on Costa Rica’s Pacific slope, has played a part in the dousing.
He said most of the country’s Pacific coast has already surpassed its average annual rainfall. In Quepos, rainfall is 12% higher than average.
“We’ve been having extreme conditions,” said Gustavo Murillo of the National Meteorological Institute (IMN).
The rainy season turned disastrous earlier this month when torrential rains washed over the eastern province of Cartago, wiping out bridges and flooding at least 300 homes (TT, Oct. 5).
Murillo said more heavy rains are expected through this week and into next. Home Away From Home
Rescue workers slogged through mud and debris late last week to pull victims’ bodies from the mud in Atenas.
Family and friends of victims crowded behind yellow caution tape near the disaster site under a canopy of umbrellas, waiting hours to hear word about their loved ones.
“They pulled out two bodies – well, parts of two bodies. I think they are mine,” said Arley Ovedas, referring to 10 and 18- year-old daughters. He lost both in the tragedy. Loved ones held funerals for the victims this week.
In Santa Ana, southwest of San José, a landslide Saturday night gorged a stream valley and filled a road with waist-deep mud, forcing almost 25 families from their hillsides.
Though it stopped short of washing away homes, the pending danger of loose soil in coffee plantations high above has stranded families in a makeshift hostel further downhill, where they await word from government authorities on what to do next.
“Some people want to go back to their homes, but they’re not safe. It’s a real disaster waiting to happen,” said Ruth Velíz, a Nicaraguan immigrant who has lived on the hillside for two years.
On the central Pacific, residents waded around in waist-high water all week after the ParritaRiver flooded and soaked some 1,000 homes, according to Gallardo.
Gallardo and President Arias both converged in Guanacaste this week, where water inundated acre upon acre of sugarcane and other agricultural crops. The daily La Nación reported that some 1,400 hectares of sugarcane fields flooded.
Health Minister María Luisa Avila said Wednesday more than a week of floods had increased risks of illnesses such as dengue and diarrhea. Landslides also knocked out pipes, leaving some 50,000 without potable water nationwide.
The CNE declared a yellow alert throughout the country, with a green alert in the Caribbean and a red alert in the central Pacific and Atenas.
Costa Rica’s Red Cross director Guillermo Arroyo said it was the toughest week of the year for the Red Cross, and feared further disasters with the rains to come. Some 150 Red Cross workers were sent to Atenas after the fatal landslide, and other workers were sent to Guanacaste, the central Pacific and Southern Zone this week to help those affected by floods.
“It’s been a lot of death, a lot of demolished houses, a lot of damage to infrastructure,” Arroyo told The Tico Times. He said the Costa Rican Red Cross needs donations to help flooding victims, which donors can deposit into bank accounts (see box).
“Unfortunately, meteorologists tell us the rain will continue,” he said. Amidst the chaos the night her neighborhood was flooded, Velíz and her two daughters, Carla, 19, and Fernanda, 16, had hopped a cement wall that rings their house, and were then buried chest deep in mud.
“We left the houses half naked.We took nothing with us,” she said. She and her daughters managed to escape unharmed, and together with almost 140 people, made their way around the hillside and back down the other side to safety.
Tuesday, four days after her neighborhood was flooded, Velíz and others were waiting the arrival of the Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS).
“Nobody has told us anything. All we’re asking for is a decent place to rest,” she said.
According to Nelson Mora, advisor to the president of the Institute, the process is underway, and could be resolved as soon as the end of the week.
“The process is taking longer than expected, because there have been so many disasters in the past two weeks,”Mora said.
According to Mora, emergency spending this year has increased seven-fold over last year, from ¢112 million ($217,000) to ¢782 million ($1.5 million) thus far this year.
For her part, Velíz and others, stranded in the clammy, cement-floored shelter, simply want to see closure and return to their jobs.
She said she just wants help to find a new home.
“So we can get started with our lives again,” Velíz said.
How to Help
You can donate directly to bank accounts opened by the National Emergency Commission (CNE):
Banco de Costa Rica colones account 91100-3 and dollars account 118281-1
Banco Nacional colones account 911-8
Those wanting to help can also drop off food or other materials at the Red Cross headquarters at Avenida 8 and Calle 14 and 16, which is behind the Health Ministry. For more info call the Red Cross at 233-7033.