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Leaders Pledge Millions to Aid Flood Victims

With government aid and foreign donations coming mostly from China, Costa Rica has rounded up about half the money it needs to repair an estimated $130 million in flood damages.

President Oscar Arias announced Wednesday while touring China that he will put $20 million in aid from China towards flood reconstruction (see separate story).

Private donations are still trickling in as well to help repair destruction caused by two weeks of relentless rains, persistent flooding and tragic landslides.

Laura Chinchilla, who is acting President while Arias visits China, met with Cabinet members and 18 representatives of Costa Rica’s public institutions Monday at Casa Presidencial in an attempt to shore up financial support for the relief and reconstruction effort.

Arias signed an emergency decree last week aimed to expedite the effort by freeing up budgets of different government institutions to donate money to the relief effort.

But the decree didn’t actually obligate any of the agencies to cough up money, which left Chinchilla this week the job of rallying support from within the government.

The funds, which Chinchilla said will be handed over to the National Emergency Commission (CNE) next week at the latest, will go toward reconstructing roads and houses, as well as toward goods and materials for families affected by the flooding.

Some 15,000 people were affected, more than 3,100 fled to shelters, and 18 were killed in a brutal landslide and flash floods in recent weeks due to heavy rains.

“We’re obligated to be committed to the necessities of one of the country’s most grave disasters,” Chinchilla said. Chinchilla is working with the Finance Ministry to find out which institutions have the largest surpluses.

The national media questioned this week whether the administration’s tendency to declare states of emergency has been an effective tool to combat emergencies ranging from natural disasters such as flooding to energy shortages.

Following the five emergency decrees the government has declared since June of last year, only $4.4 million were collected, though damages topped $57 million, the daily La Nación reported.

The rains were caused by a confluence of rainy season weather, low-pressure systems and tropical depressions that battered Costa Rica in recent weeks (TT, Oct. 19).

Damage Assessment

At the conference Monday, held on the first sunny day in the Central Valley in two weeks, Inter-Institutional Minister Marco Vargas said Costa Rican industries took “very serious losses” which are still being evaluated.

Chinchilla formed a special commission Wednesday to identify losses in the agriculture sector and propose how to allocate government aid. The commission is to release a report next week.

Some representatives of the agriculture sector said that while they expected to see some effects from last week’s rains, damages are hard to assess at the moment and will in any event probably be light.

Though many sugar fields were flooded around the TempisqueRiver, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, that is not too unusual, and sugarcane – a tropical plant – is somewhat hardy in those situations, said Edgar Herrera, executive director of the Industrial Sugarcane League.

“It’s not that sugarcane is invincible to flooding,” he said, “but at least it resists a little more.”

In any case, potential damage to the crop can’t be accurately estimated until the cane is harvested, Herrera said, though he does expect that yields will be lower.

Rice, beans and coffee sectors are also trying to tally damage.

Coffee production will likely be affected as well in the low-lying areas where the excessive rains are causing some coffee plants to ripen too fast, said Warner Villegas, a spokesman for the Costa Rican Coffee Institute (ICAFE).

Likewise, the higher coffee-producing zones will probably experience some ojo de gallo fungus that damages leaves. Altogether, however, Villegas said the effect is “not significant” and that ICAFE expects the coffee harvest this year to outstrip last year’s 2.3 million 46-kilogram bags.

The greater problem the flooding caused for the coffee harvest was washing out roads used by the harvesters, roads which were often only dirt tracks hugging steep ledges to begin with, Villegas said.

National Emergency Commission director Daniel Gallardo said the coffee industry’s roads were “hit hardest.”

Public Works and Transport Minister Karla González said the Ministry (MOPT) is working to lay a provisional bridge across a stretch of the

Inter-American Highway

in southern Costa Rica that was knocked out by a landslide.

She said repairing some damaged infrastructure, for example a bridge over the main road in Barva, north of Heredia, will take months, though the priority is to keep the country’s main arteries flowing.

“We’re responding so the national routes aren’t interrupted,’’ she said. She estimated that 29 bridges, 124 stretches of highway, 41 water pipes and 15 power lines were damaged by floods.

More than 3,100 people were still living in shelters at the beginning of this week, most of them in Guanacaste. Evacuations continued into this week, when 550 people were displaced from the town of Cañas and surrounding areas, according to Gallardo. By the end of the week, however, most had left shelters.

He said an emergency response, including the construction of new homes for victims, is crucial not only as a response to this disaster, but to avoid further disasters.

“If we don’t build houses for those with destroyed homes in a matter of months, they’ll go back to the river and build there. We’ll be watching the same movie,” Gallardo said.

The Emergency Commission has received some $230,000 in private donations so far this week, and received four semi-truckloads of donated goods to be distributed to victims. More donations are expected to flow in through next week. In addition to private donations and planned government emergency funds, Vargas said he has formed a committee to seek more funds from international banks and relief organizations. The U.S. Embassy also announced it would fork over $50,000 for relief.

The CNE lifted alerts throughout the country except for a yellow alert for the Guanacaste cantons of Carrillo, Cañas, Santa Cruz, Bagaces and Nicoya.

Gallardo said Monday that the last detected tropical depression had passed through and predicted that the weather could only get better.

Tico Times reporter Peter Krupa contributed to this article.

How to Help

You can donate directly to bank accounts opened by the National Emergency Commission (CNE): Banco de Costa Rica colón account 91100-3 and dollars account 118281-1, or Banco Nacional colón account 911-8.

Those wanting to help can also drop off food or other materials at the Red Cross headquarters in San José at Ave. 8 and Calle 14 and 16, behind the Health Ministry. For more info, call the Red Cross at 233-7033.



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