SAN PABLODELEON CORTES – Lillian Valverde stands sobbing in front of the one wall left of her home. The others were washed away by Tropical Storm Alma one month ago.
“It was a lake here,” she says of her neighborhood, about 30 kilometers south of San José. “It was terrifying.”
Government officials from the National Emergency Commission (CNE) and Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) have claimed recently that everything has returned to normal.
Valverde is proof that, at least on a personal level, they haven’t.
A 12-year resident of San Pablo, Valverde has been living with neighbors kind enough to help her out. She says she applied for economic assistance from the Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS) right after her home was destroyed.
“I’ve received nothing yet. I filled out paperwork with them on May 29,” she says.
IMAS spokesman Nelson Mora says he could not immediately provide an explanation of Valverde’s case.
Though most of the country has dried out from Tropical Storm Alma, which pounded the western Pacific flanks of Costa Rica on May 29, some communities are still struggling to recover.
Some 112 homes were destroyed, and some areas are still without phone service in the canton of Pérez Zeledón, about 75 kilometers southeast of San José, which was among the hardest hit.
ICE officials claim all phone service has to the region by The Tico Times indicate otherwise.
IMAS Director José Li says his agency, which provides economic aid to the poor, has already awarded $410,000 in vouchers to victims for food, clothes, mattresses and rent in Pérez Zeledón. He says another $200,000 has been disbursed to victims in Parrita.
“The destructive power of nature is terrible,” Li says. “There are boulders the size of cars littering parts of Pérez Zeledón, such as Rivas. The road to Rivas disappeared and the El GeneralRiver, which used to be 300 meters away, changed course and took its place.”
Li says the Central Pacific towns of Rivas, Playa Hermosa, Buenaventura,General Viejo and Pueblo Nuevo, although no longer cut off, are still recovering.
Fertilizer Gone, Fungus Coming?
Another hard-hit area is Los Santos, a coffee-producing region south of San José, where farmers are facing the likelihood of diminished productivity because landslides washed away their first seasonal application of fertilizer.
“The first stage (of fertilizer) is extremely important to make sure that (the coffee) grows,” says Leonardo Chacon, who farms 10 hectares in Santa Barbara and supplements his income with a small beef cattle operation.
“It’s a very small harvest we’re expecting this year because the fertilizer was all washed away. That’s a tough hit on farmers because the cost of raw materials has increased 65 to 70 percent over the last several years.”
Farmers also fear that Alma, which was the earliest tropical storm to hit their region in at least 120 years, will aid their most ominous enemy: ojo de gallo, a fungus, also known as American coffee leaf spot disease, which causes plants to shed their leaves and fruit.
“In 120 years, no one here, grandparents included, remembers a storm coming from the Pacific or even a serious storm in May,” Chacon says. “This year, (ojo de gallo) is especially threatening because of the early rainy season. Farmers will have to attack it (with fungicides) earlier in the season, and they hadn’t budgeted for that.”
Coffee Institute of Costa Rica employee Adrian Gamboa says 500 hectares in Los Santos were negatively affected by Alma, but the final impact won’t be known until the harvest is completed next year. The coffee harvest here runs from November to March.
Destruction and Loss
Santa Barbara de Dota was lucky, compared to other communities, because none of its homes was destroyed.Nearby Llano Bonito and San Pablo de León Cortés suffered numerous home losses.
San Pablo resident Carlos Cordero says at least six families lost their homes to Alma in nearby Sagrada Familia and Barrio del Estadio.
In Llano Bonito, near San Pablo, the local 600-member coffee cooperative saw most of its ovens, coffee-sorting machinery and 100 46-kilogram quintales, roughly 10,000 pounds, of export-ready coffee inundated during the storm. Their factory has recouped about $700,000 of an estimated $1 million in losses from its insurance company, but the facilities, built in 1972 right next to the La Concepción and Los Barros Ravines, are still a mess.
“We’ve been cleaning for three weeks with 22 employees full-time,” says Llano Bonito co-op engineer Jorge Ortiz. “That number is shocking because we normally have only 18 working during the highest point of harvest season.”
Employees recently completed a retaining wall they hope will prevent a repeat flood the next time a storm hits.
“Nobody was expecting this,” Ortiz says. “I’ve been living 10 years here and I’ve never seen anything like it.We had 300-meter-wide landslides. We’ve had storms before but never this brutal … It was totally outside of the historical norms.”
In addition to the impact on residents and coffee farmers, a government-sponsored $400 million hydroelectric project expected to generate 128 megawatts of electricity by July 2010 has been delayed at least a year because of heavy damage.
The ParritaRiver, which also changed course during Alma, ran roughshod over the Pirrís hydroelectric project, which has been under construction since 1999. The floodwaters destroyed construction equipment, washed away tons of construction materials stored at the river’s edge and dumped them into the ocean.
“The strong rise of the Parrita River, along with three large landslides caused by three of its tributaries overflowing from Alma rains, destroyed a concrete-transporting belt, a water tank, a crane, bridges, offices and access roads dedicated to the construction of the dam,” states an ICE press release.
CNE officials did not return phone calls this week to provide statistics on the number of homeless, destroyed and condemned homes as a result of Alma.