San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

‘Worst Floods in 100 Years’ Punished Country

FLOODS ransacked both coasts, flattening banana plantations and villages in the Caribbean in January in one of the most disastrous floods to hit the region – then, fueled by some of the 13 Caribbean hurricanes this season, soaked the Pacific for more than a month beginning in September.


 President Abel Pacheco said the Caribbean floods were “the most severe torrential downpours in the history of the Caribbean slope. We had never before been so punished.” In a separate statement, he called the floods “the worst in 100 years.”


The deluge broke rainfall records Jan. 8, flooded hundreds of communities in the Caribbean, and forced thousands from their homes to escape the rising water and wait for rescue or a lapse in the torrent. Four people died and more than 8,500 sought refuge in temporary shelters. Video footage and photos from rescue choppers showed victims trapped on their rooftops surrounded by water up to the eaves, awaiting airlifts or speedboats. Swollen rivers plundered houses, swept dozens away and severely damaged about 800. Besides road and bridge damage, which was extensive, the floods destroyed more than 3,000 hectares of crops, mostly bananas. Not only big plantations, but also nearly 1,000 indigenous farmers of small organic banana plots, lost about half of their production capacity. Economic damages topped $20 million.


Eight months later a punishing series of hurricanes spared Costa Rica the brunt of their fury – which they infamously unleashed on New Orleans, Florida and other southern U.S. states, as well as on Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. Costa Rica suffered the flooding rains on the outskirts of the storm. Floods pounded the Pacific coast, from the northern province of Guanacaste to the southern coastal region south of Quepos and Manuel Antonio.


“Never before in history has there been such an intense hurricane season,” Pacheco said. At the peak of the disaster in October, more than 2,000 people were in shelters, and Costa Rican Red Cross volunteers traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to help with the substantially higher numbers of victims – an estimated 2,000 people died in rain-triggered landslides in Guatemala – and costlier damage. One Costa Rican died as a direct result of the flooding when a house collapsed on Maureen Arroyo, 36, in the Central Valley town of Naranjo.


The bill for the damage in the Costa Rican Pacific, over a month of continuous downpours and drizzle, topped $163 million. Roads, bridges, waterworks and several rural communities took the hardest beating – 200 bridges and nearly 1,000 sections of roads were damaged.


In January, shortly before the Caribbean floods struck, authorities examining the destruction the tidal waves in Asia left behind called attention to the lack of a tidal-wave warning system in Costa Rica. Tidal waves have struck Costa Rican coasts throughout its 500 years of recorded history, and in recent memory a 30-foot wave bore down on the Nicaraguan coast in 1992, claiming 170 lives and displacing thousands.


Mario Fernández, a seismologist with the National Seismological Network at the University of Costa Rica, is spearheading an international initiative to develop a system that could extend from Mexico to South America along both coasts.


“We can’t wait anymore. We have to prepare ourselves,” Fernández said. “We aren’t talking about whether or not to set up a system; we are very focused on finishing it.”


In April, international scientists in Costa Rica called for a better response to the disastrous effects of global warming and stressed the need to prevent global warming from worsening.


“With global warming, the frequency of national disaster could increase in this country. That is the primary issue the global community must face in this century,” said Paulo Manso, director of Costa Rica’s National Meteorological Institute.


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