San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Country Copes with Tragedy and Loss

Costa Rica has only begun to tally the damage caused by last week’s deadly rains, a disaster which it appears the country was not prepared to face.

During the first week of November, some areas of the country received more than double the average rainfall for the entire month.

On Tuesday this week, emergency crews called off the search for victims of last week’s lethal landslides, having recovered 26 bodies and left at least nine missing. Two men in the Los Santos region who had been listed as missing were found. The country spent this week in mourning, flying flags at half-mast in respect to those who died. 

Costa Rica’s health ministry has sent psychologists to shelters near San Antonio de Escazú, west of San José, to meet with families who lost their loved ones last week when an early morning collapse at Pico Blanco hill buried and killed at least 23 people (see separate story, Page 4).

In a press conference on Tuesday, Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla referred to the storm as a “tragedy” that will require “a ton of work” and added that the country will be dealing with the disaster “long after the cameras are turned off.”

“We can say … that the country is prepared to attend to crises of certain magnitudes, but this is the first crisis of this magnitude, of this extent that we have had to confront,” Chinchilla said.

Sizing Up the Damage

Clean up, repairs and reconstruction will be costly and last months, if not years.

Of Costa Rica’s 81 cantons, 38 have been de-clared disaster zones under an emergency decree signed shortly after rains and landslides ambushed communities nationwide. Gover-nment agencies are crunching cost figures and emergency teams are still airlifting aid supplies to stranded communities.

At least 2,626 homes suffered some level of damage due to flooding or landslides and more than 4,000 people were forced to flee their homes. As of Thursday, 1,169 evacuees remained in temporary shelters.

Teams of engineers from Costa Rica’s Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS) began to visit homes last week to determine which structures can be repaired and which families will need new dwellings. In the case that the IMAS crew deems a house uninhabitable, the agency will provide rent and food money for three months to the  owners while the state builds new houses. On Tuesday, Chinchilla announced that the government has created a 4 billion (roughly $7.7 million) fund that will be used for home construction and repairs.

The central government will not know the total cost for cleanup and rebuilding until next week at the earliest. Officials expect that repairs to roads and new housing will have the highest price tags.

On Monday, Costa Rica’s second vice president, Luis Liberman, released a report that detailed the cost of early response to the storm. In the first four days after the disaster, the country spent 840 million ($1.6 million), mostly in supply distribution and rent for heavy machinery to clear roadways.

By law, during states of emergency, government agencies must contribute surplus money to assist in disaster relief efforts. So far, the government has pooled 44.5 billion (roughly $86.4 million) in funds to attend to the disaster, including 23 billion for it’s Extraordinary Circumstances Fund, a figure that legislators approved Tuesday night.

Other countries have also chipped in.

The Colombian, Panamanian and Guatemalan armed forces sent airplanes and helicopters to help search for victims and transport food, water and medical supplies and personnel to communities where access by road is impossible.

The United States pledged a total of $60,000 for supplies, and Costa Rica’s National Emergency Commission (CNE) has confirmed a $300,000 donation from the Moroccan government. On Tuesday, the Organization of American States (OAS) donated $25,000 to Costa Rica for disaster relief. The Inter-American Development Bank granted $200,000 to the country on Thursday.

On Wednesday, nearly a week after the first day of the emergency, 38 communities remained isolated because of closed roads and the CNE reported that eight of those communities, mostly in the country’s southern zone, had not yet received any assistance. Emergency personnel hoped to reach those eight communities by Thursday afternoon.

Officials from the National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA) said on Tuesday that some 120,000 residents across the country still have no running water in their homes, mainly in Acosta, Alajuelita, Aserrí and Desamparados, south of San José, and in several sectors of Santa Ana and Escazú, west of San José. These communities could remain dry for several weeks, officials said, as crews scramble to repair pipes and aqueducts, which the agency estimates could cost 2.8 billion ($5.4 million).

In the meantime, AyA is circulating 11 cistern trucks in affected communities. Emergency crews have also been airlifting water to stranded communities, having already shipped 125,000 liters of water to sites across the country.

In Tuesday’s press conference, Liberman, who is charged with calculating clean up and rebuilding costs, requested “patience” as the country begins to deal with the aftermath of last week’s overwhelming catastrophe.   

“We don’t know yet exactly how much damage there is because it is everywhere,” he said.

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