Tropical Storm Alma came and went last week, leaving flooding and destroyed homes, roads and aqueducts in its wake. The storm forced hundreds of Costa Ricans to take refuge in schools and churches-turned-relief shelters and killed at least three people, with another still missing and presumed dead, according to the Red Cross.
On Monday, the government declared a state of emergency in almost two dozen of the country’s 81 cantons (see map on Page 10). The list includes three that remained, as of press time, under “red alert”: Pérez Zeledón, in the southern reaches of the San José province, and Parrita and Aguirre, in the central Pacific province of Puntarenas.
Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias is expected to fly out to Pérez Zeledón and Parrita today to assess the damages firsthand.
Workers are racing to clear up theInter- American Highway South
, particularly near Cerro de la Muerte, the highest point of the route in the country, heading down to Pérez Zeledón, where landslides and a washedaway lane have rendered the road impassable.
At least 34 mudslides are barring passage down the highway, reported the daily La Nación, which quoted Public Works and Transport Minister Karla González saying the damages “are worse than those from (1996’s) Hurricane Cesar.”
An alternate route, the bumpy Costanera (Coastal) Highway, has been badly bottlenecked, especially at its rickety, one-lane bridges in Parrita and Paquita, near the popular central Pacific coast town of Quepos, according to the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT).
The damage left by Alma is worse than the administration initially thought.
“It seems we fell short in our earlier estimates of the damage,” Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias said Monday, seated next to his brother, President Oscar Arias – still recovering from irritated vocal chords – minutes before the leader signed the emergency decree.
Rodrigo Arias called the damage “immense,” pointing to areas such as Peréz Zeledón, whose population was cut off by road blockages on one side and collapsed bridges on the other.
The government estimated the cost of the wreckage to exceed $35 million. An exact count is pending full reports on damaged bridges, homes, roads, aqueducts and levees, which each municipality will submit to the National Emergency Commission (CNE).
Emergency officials are satisfied with their response efforts as well as the population’s.
“Lots of people have been working together and helping out,” said CNE Director Daniel Gallardo.
CNE spokesman Reinaldo Carballo praised the relief workers’ preparedness. “The commission began preparing before the storm hit,” he said. “They had emergency workers studying the protocol around the country. The commission was ready.”
Carballo said earlier this week that the country is “still in the primary response phase,” which consists of rescuing storm victims, bringing in food, setting up and maintaining shelters and trying to prevent further flooding.
Then comes the “reconstruction phase,” he said, which begins when each community carries out damage assessments.
The mayor of each community makes a report of the damage caused by the storm and estimates the cost of repair, Carballo said. After this assessment, the CNE draws up a response plan to repair the damage.
Relief workers persevered this week, making headway to reach residents of some of the hardest hit communities. The emergency commission carved a path to Pérez Zeledón, bringing in food and other supplies on foot and even horseback, Carballo said.
By today, according to the CNE spokesman, 120 people will remain in four shelters – one in Pérez Zeledón and three, including JericóEvangelicalChurch, housing 18 elderly people, in Parrita. Carballo said that at the height of the emergency effort last week,“we had 3,000 people staying in more than 50 shelters.”
Cervecería de Costa Rica, the national brewery, has donated bottled water, and other private and public groups have pitched in with rice, beans and other staples.
The Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS) has been helping families whose homes became uninhabitable to find rentals, Carballo added.
However, about 13 remote communities – totaling about 1,000 inhabitants – in Pérez Zeledón are still out of reach because of wrecked country roads, he said Thursday.
These include Alaska, Buena Vista, División, La Piedra, Piedras Blancas and Pueblo Nuevo. Dehydration and diarrhea may be rampant in these areas, he added.
Carballo noted that the country is trapped in a vicious cycle.
“We haven’t finished fixing the damage yet from last year. (We’re) only 50 or 60 percent of the way done,” he said. “So while we’re still recovering from the last season, we’re facing the start of another hurricane season.”
The cycle has led residents to wonder if something can be done to prevent it. For William Vargas, risk research coordinator at the National Structural Materials and Models Laboratory, the repeated highway destruction does not have to be a given and should be prevented.
“It’s possible, and it’s costly,” said Vargas, whose laboratory is part of the University of Costa Rica. “But if the country wants to improve its infrastructure and competitiveness among other Central American countries, it has to make the necessary investment.”
He said the “trigger factor” was the high level of rain, which saturated theInter-American Highway
and “reduced its resistance.”
Overly steep slopes in the highway, its poorly constructed embankments and cut slopes contributed to the ease with which Alma washed chunks of it away, he said, adding that proper studies need to be conducted to fix the country’s roads and prevent further destruction.
“We are likely to have problems in the future because climate change has something to do with all these events that are becoming more common,” Vargas said. “In my opinion, it’s necessary to confront the problem in a systematic way and not as an emergency every time it occurs.”
Alma is the first tropical storm of its caliber to hit the country’s Pacific side in 120 years, according to meteorologist José Joaquín Agüero, who noted that such weather systems are more characteristic of the Caribbean.
Red Cross Disaster Prevention Chief Luis Angel Jiménez described the storm as “atypical,” as it “hit so many parts of the country so quickly.We’ve really had to spread out our emergency staff.”
Jeannette Pérez, owner of a fishing business on the central Pacific coast, said she watched the storm sink 11 boats and damage 16 others anchored off Quepos.
“I’ve been here 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like that,” she said.
Tico Times reporter Nicolas Ruggia contributed to this report.
How to Help
Donations to help Red Cross Alma relief efforts can be deposited in Banco Nacional account 100100-7, Banco de Costa Rica account 176003-3 or Banco Popular account 5000-8. The organization is also seeking donations of food and cleaning supplies; for information, call 2233-7279 or 2280-6464.