San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Emergency officials announce high-tech early warning system for landslides

In November 2010, a lethal landslide at Pico Blanco above San Antonio de Escazú, a mountainside suburb west of San José, killed 23 people. Rains from Tropical Storm Tomás and a local low-pressure system caused devastating rains that washed down the mountain, wiping out homes and burying anything in the path under heavy rocks and a thick blanket of mud.

Some of the residents forced to evacuate the area have begun moving back to the area, once again placing their lives at risk should another landslide occur.

Meanwhile, officials from the National Emergency Commission (CNE) and the National Meteorological Institute (IMN) are designing a new system – the first of is kind in Central America – to help warn resident in areas prone to landslides in order to mitigate the damage from future natural disasters.

“We’re working on advanced preventive measures in high-risk areas by using new technology,” said CNE President Vanessa Rosales. “We’ve been exploring and testing this technology for the first time in the country.”

From their headquarters in Pavas, CNE officials announced last Thursday the creation of seven monitoring stations that will provide real-time rainfall and landslide data at four high-risk sites: Burío in Escazú, Tablazo in Desamparados, Chitaría in Santa Ana and Cerro Cedral, all located along the southern San José metropolitan area.

Monitoring station

Monitoring station.  Couresy of CNE

The new system will cost $300,000, and will be aided by IMN experts, the CNE announced.

Although September and early October have been dryer than normal, this is the time of year when most landslides occur, officials said.

“This is the initial phase of a great [early-warning] investment,” IMN Director Juan Carlos Fallas said.

“Having a [better] record of rainfall, temperature, wind [and other patterns] will facilitate knowledge about the areas where the stations are located, and as a result, will allow us to develop better [management] strategies … around the country,” he added.

The seven locations will be equipped with high-tech cameras and meteorological stations, to provide precise information online to experts, Fallas said. Experts can then provide early warning to local residents.

“We are not going to prevent events from taking place,” Fallas said. “But what we can do is improve response times while taking the necessary preventive measures in those communities.”

Currently, three experts at the IMN work daily on eight-hour shifts, from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., including holidays, to monitor the information, Fallas said. The CNE also will use staff members for monitoring.

But, the project could be affected by a staff shortage, as at least seven meteorologists are set to retire by the end of the year, the IMN director said.

“We can’t do anything with new technology if we don’t have people to watch and interpret the information,” Fallas said.

Taking a big chunk of the investment is a new steel net measuring 12 meters wide and three meters long that cost about $200,000. Some European countries use the steel nets to block falling snow and debris during avalanches. In Costa Rica, one was placed at the Chitaría landslide site in Santa Ana, along the Canoas River.

Steel nets help decrease the dragging of debris, mud and logs in the stream, which can swell into a raging river during rainstorms.

Meanwhile, in San Antonio de Escazú, some displaced residents are making their way back to the area after complaining that housing assistance never materialized after the 2010 landslide.

Housing Ministry officials said on Friday they have been closely working with the Escazú Municipality to provide emergency material and to implement prevention programs at the municipality’s request. But ministry officials said it is up to each municipality to provide evacuated residents with housing alternatives.

“The experience in Escazú has brought to light a serious issue regarding the availability and cost of land, which complicates the relocation process,” said Erick Mata, the Housing Ministry’s resettlement and housing director.

Mata said his office asked the National Housing Mortgage Bank to set aside funds from its annual budget to assist families living in high-risk areas.

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