San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Rains Set Records, Cause Misery

This year ended with a weather-related exclamation mark on the Caribbean coast and plains, where heavy rains caused mudslides and flooding that left one person dead and forced thousands from their homes and into shelters, mostly in the province of Limón.

In the wake of the storms, which hit at the end of November and lasted through early December, preliminary estimates of the damage to roads, bridges, schools and other infrastructure rose above $75 million. Banana growers said they looked to lose up to $30 million worth of their prized crop.

But the Caribbean actually experienced a relatively dry year overall, according to the National Meteorological Institute (IMN).

Precipitation records, meanwhile, were set in the Central Valley, home to the capital San José and the erstwhile capital Cartago. By September, nearing the peak of the region’s rainy season, San José had seen the most precipitation in 64 years and looked on course to set a 100-year record. By press time, final data were not yet available.

A rewind through the year shows meteorologists buzzing about La Niña, a phenomenon that brought more rain than expected to the Central Valley and Pacific regions and less precipitation to the Caribbean side.

For folklore-loving Costa Ricans, however, the year’s rain was already predicted in the first 12 days of the year, called las pintas.

To some an old wives’ tale, las pintas are believed to be predictors of rains to come throughout the year, each day representing one month. Jan. 2 rain at least proved true when unseasonable sprinkles fell for a couple of days in February.

But no pinta seemed to foretell the damaging weather that swept in from the Pacific in late May. Tropical Storm Alma left three people dead, helped spread a dengue fever epidemic and caused roughly $40 million in infrastructural damage.

While Costa Rica reckoned with the damage at the end of May, storms over the Caribbean began to brew as the Atlantic hurricane season began.

Rains blamed on outcroppings from Tropical Storm Hanna caused multiple rivers in the northwestern Guanacaste province to overflow their banks and roads to give way to saturation and mudslides.

All told, workers from the National Emergency Commission and Red Cross were the unsung heroes during 2008’s often punishing weather, having helped evacuate thousands upon thousands of residents to bring them to safety in dry temporary shelters.

But by the end of the year, Costa Rica faced a familiar predicament: how to repair the damage before the next rainy season comes pouring in.

–Alex Leff


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