San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

El Salvador still reeling from October floods

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The last few months haven’t been kind to El Salvador, or to Central America in general. Torrential rains that lashed the region for 10 days in mid-October left 105 people dead and caused billions of dollars in damage to countries whose fragile economies are already suffering the effects of the global economic downturn.

As if that weren’t enough, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime recently made official what El Salvador’s 6.2 million people have known for a long time: Their country is among the most violent on Earth, along with nearby Honduras, Belize and Guatemala.

Francisco Roberto Altschul Fuentes, El Salvador’s ambassador to the United States, discussed his country’s predicament in a lengthy interview in Washington.

“These rains are by far the worst phenomenon we’ve had in 40 years,” he said, showing a chart depicting all major tropical cyclones and low-pressure systems that have caused torrential rains over the last half-century. “Nevertheless, it hasn’t gotten a lot of coverage in the media. We think that’s because it was only rains, not hurricanes or tropical storms. It’s also because it doesn’t have a name. It’s not Mitch or Katrina, just Tropical Depression 12E.”

Hurricane Mitch, one of the deadliest natural disasters ever to strike Central America, dumped 861 millimeters of rain on El Salvador, killing more than 200 people (though the 1998 storm left more than 11,000 dead in neighboring Honduras and Nicaragua).

By comparison, 12E unleashed 1,513 mm of rain in 10 days and caused 35 fatalities in El Salvador.

“This was because of the work the government did in terms of prevention and early evacuation of the population at risk,” said Altschul. “Nearly half of the 35 who died were people who refused to leave when the government told them to do so.”

All told, some 105 people died in flooding and landslides provoked by the rains; in addition to the Salvadoran victims, 38 people died in Guatemala, 15 in Honduras, 13 in Nicaragua and five in Costa Rica. More than 1 million people were affected.

“El Salvador is going through one of the most dramatic disasters in its history,” President Mauricio Funes told his countrymen Oct. 20 in a televised address.

The rains caused damage in all of El Salvador’s 14 departments, though the hardest-hit area was the coastal zone around La Unión. About 300,000 people were directly affected by the rains, 270,000 of them in rural areas. At one point, more than 60,000 people were housed in temporary shelters.

“In Comasagua, in the department of La Libertad, relatives of a lady who works with us said they heard a rumble underground, and suddenly water started to come out of the hills,” said Altschul.

In the days after the disaster, the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador established a $500,000 fund for emergency aid. Other countries launched similar funds, including Taiwan, Spain, South Korea, Mexico, Ecuador, Germany and Canada. Even Guatemala, which was also badly affected by the rains, announced it would help El Salvador.

On Oct. 25, regional presidents met in San Salvador to discuss emergency relief efforts.

“No country in this region has the financial clout to pay for the damage caused by the incessant rains, and it is essential that we bond together as an isthmus to generate relief funds and plans for recovery,” said Funes, estimating it would take $1.5 billion to repair the damage. “It will require everyone to chip in, which includes every nation in Central America, as well as the international community.”

The phenomenon known as 12E caused losses of $840 million, which is equivalent to 4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Damage to agriculture is severe; it appears that El Salvador lost 60 percent of its corn and bean production.

“This is particularly sad, because this year we were expecting record crops in corn, beans and rice. The government had made specific efforts to invest in rural areas,” Altschul said.

The country is also a major coffee exporter, yet industry association Procafé said the heavy rains wiped out 90,000 bags of production. Eventual losses may go as high as 239,000 bags because of high winds and road damage; that would mean a 17 percent drop in a harvest that was estimated at 1.42 million 60-kilogram bags this year.

Some 80 percent of public infrastructure was affected; many roads and bridges were washed out and must be replaced, but El Salvador faces a budget crunch that’s been exacerbated by the economic slowdown in the U.S.

According to embassy statistics, 2.5 million Salvadoran nationals live in the U.S., with the largest concentrations found in Los Angeles, followed by Washington, D.C., which is home to about half a million.

Together, they send home about $3 billion a year in remittances, accounting for roughly 19 percent of the country’s GDP. But because the U.S. construction sector – which employs a disproportionate number of Salvadorans – has been weak, those remittances have dropped by 12 percent this year.

“We don’t have the resources necessary for this disaster,” said the ambassador. “We would have to divert money being used for something else, but the problem is, these other resources have already been allocated for security, health and education. That’s why we definitely need international support.”

Vanda Pignato, wife of President Mauricio Funes, recently met in New York with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to explain the gravity of the situation. The U.N. later issued an immediate appeal for $50 million in emergency aid to El Salvador. The first lady also met with former U.S. President Bill Clinton and sought his help through the Clinton Global Initiative.

El Salvador has 16 consulates throughout the U.S., and all of them have been involved in telethons and other fundraising events.

But none of this will matter much as the severity of tropical cyclones and low-pressure systems that cause torrential rains intensify in coming years.

In the 1960s and ’70s, El Salvador was struck by one tropical cyclone in each decade. From 2002 to 2011, however, the country was hit by seven named cyclones and two nameless low-pressure systems.

In just two years (November 2009 to October 2011), about 250 people died in five events. According to the U.N. Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean, almost $1.3 billion (6 percent of the country’s GDP) was lost in just three of those events: Ida in November 2009, Agatha in May 2010 and this past October’s 12E.

“That’s why it’s so important at this moment that we don’t just repair things, but that we do the necessary work that has to be done in order to mitigate the effect. One inch of rain next year is going to cause more damage than one inch of rain today. The earth is already saturated, and everything is more vulnerable,” Altschul said.

The ambassador said he’s also asked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to temporarily halt deportations of criminals back to El Salvador. Along the same lines, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has already announced a series of measures allowing Central Americans who were in the U.S. and who cannot go back right now because of the flooding to prolong their stay.

“If we don’t do what we have to do, if we’re not able to quickly get people working to repair and rebuild the bridges, poverty is going to increase, and therefore violence and crime will go up,” Altschul warned.

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