San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Amid Death and Disaster, Neighbors Move On

SAN ANTONIO DE ESCAZU – Boulders the size of Volkswagen Beetles jut from the mud covering the steep hillside that was once known as Calle Lajas, but since the morning of Nov. 4 has been dubbed Río Lajas. Even days after the landslide that killed 23 people here, rescue workers, police officers and representatives from various utility companies still swarm the scene as neighbors survey the area, which now looks more like a surreal, post-apocalyptic wasteland than a quiet, middle-class neighborhood. 

Walter Alfaro has owned property in San Antonio de Escazú for 15 years and lived in the area for two. He describes the neighborhood, now no more than a muddy jumble of rocks and broken trees, as a once peaceful place marked by trees and a gurgling stream. “It used to be beautiful and green,” he says. “Nobody ever expected something like this to happen.”

Alfaro’s property was untouched by the violent flow of mud and rocks that funneled down the narrow canyon that lies in the shadow of Pico Blanco, a towering peak now marked by a naked, brown gash on its northwest face where rains washed away a sizeable chunk of the hillside. His house sits conveniently adjacent to and uphill from the site of the mudslide, and the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) has been using the land as an informal base, tramping through Alfaro’s garden to cart out cadavers and any belongings that could be salvaged from the houses below.

Alfaro is happy to help however he can, noting that his inconveniences pale beside the week’s tragedy. He nods downhill to a neighbor’s house. Its walls are badly stained by mud and water, and the tin roof has crumpled like a piece of aluminum foil.

“He got out just in time,” says Alfaro, referring to the owner of the half-buried home. “He grabbed his wife and daughter and they were able to escape uphill to safety. Anybody who lived east of that house died. None of those houses are even there anymore.”

Three of Alfaro’s friends, two brothers and one of their wives, lived to the east of that point of no return, where the canyon’s walls grow more narrow and steep. Their bodies, along with the bodies of their two horses, were discovered by rescue workers hundreds of meters downhill, trapped beneath several tons of mud, boulders and debris.

Byron Batista, a machinist and metalworker who holds a job making bread pans in a Calle Lajas shop, found a body next to the wreckage of his workplace. He took responsibility for pulling out the victim while overworked firefighters and Red Cross personnel labored elsewhere. 

“The smell was just too strong,” he says. “I had to dig it up.”

Husaí Hernández, who works alongside Batista and lives in his parents’ house, which is attached to the metal shop, had just returned home from soccer practice on the night of Nov. 3. Still awake, he sat on his front porch watching the downpour and the rising stream of water running through Calle Lajas.

“There are always heavy rains, and sure the street floods a little, but never like this,” he says.

As Hernández watched the rain, he noticed that the power lines on his street started bouncing up and down. Realizing that something was wrong, he alerted his parents and ran upstairs.

“It was a river of mud, boulders and uprooted trees,” Hernández says. “There were cars and refrigerators and washing machines flying past. An entire tin shanty slammed into the house.”

In fact, the torrent brought a rolling boulder crashing into Hernández’ father’s car, which in turn smashed the front of the house, toppling the front porch, and bringing down its roof.

“I finished building that porch a week ago,” says Batista, shaking his head. He corrects himself. “No, less than that even,”

Hernández’s parents, seeing their home dashed apart and quickly filling with a rising tide of mud, started panicking.

“There was a moment when I thought ‘I’m going to die right here, right now,’” Hernández admits.

Despite the terror, Hernández led his family out of the upstairs window, where they escaped over their neighbor’s roof and onto the wooded hillside behind their home, safe from the destruction happening below.

“Thank God my girlfriend and baby boy weren’t here. My baby is 9 months old. It was hard enough climbing out the window and over a roof, but imagine doing that with a baby. I don’t know what I would have done. I would have gone crazy.”

Other folks weren’t as fortunate.

Hernández points to a bulldozer dragging a car that was smashed so badly that its wheels point out at awkward angles and its roof touches the back seat. He explains that the bodies of an entire family were found entombed in the automobile.

“If it had happened earlier in the day a lot more people would have survived. They would have been at work, and their kids would have been at school, but almost everyone was asleep in their beds.”

As if the natural disaster and the deaths it caused weren’t enough for the neighborhood to cope with, the area, which has been largely abandoned by its occupants, has become a magnet for parasitic looters. According to the two metalworkers, it was only a matter of hours before thieves began pilfering anything they could haul off.

“I have to sleep here at night to guard the house,” says Batista.

Hernández, who is sleeping in a nearby disaster relief shelter, returns home every day to continue making bread pans despite the obvious obstacle of the shop and most of his tools having been washed away. A bakery placed a large order before the disaster, and Hernández wants to fulfill his end of the deal.

He says, “You have to put one foot in front of the other and just try not to think about it too much. What else are we going to do?”

Despite the devastation unleashed on his home, Hernández says that the government has deemed the area safe for habitation, and that many of the neighborhood’s residents – those with homes still standing – are already making plans to rebuild the life that they once had. They hope that a combination of insurance money and government aid, in addition to their own hard work, will bring everything back to its normal state.

Red-eyed and dirty, Hernández returns to his work, cutting sheets of aluminum.

“Nobody here knows what to believe.”

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