San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
No Sugar, Please

Hurricane Otto: Two myths swept aside in a single night

In 2005 while I was doing a practicum at a newspaper in Spain, I overheard a designer pass off as fact a story about Costa Rica; I couldn’t help but eavesdrop in the hallway. The designer said that on that “Caribbean island,” when a hurricane came, everyone gathered in Saprissa Stadium and started blowing in the opposite direction until the danger had passed. According to the story, this worked very well, and that’s why there was never any news of hurricanes in Costa Rica.

I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know whether to laugh or get angry, and because I thought the story was only an exaggerated version of what Ticos think about ourselves: that we can scare off a hurricane with the sheer windpower of the Virgin of Los Angelees, or that divine forces prefer us above other countries more frequently punished by natural disasters.

We can say now that that myth has been swept aside. It was ripped away by the winds of more than 150 kilometers per hour that brought us Hurricane Otto on Nov. 24. This was the first time that a hurricane’s eye and heart had entered our national territory, according to historical records. This time we must not have blown quite as hard as we did in 1988 when Hurricane Juana came to call – or maybe the Virgin of Los Angeles, because of her many devotees in Nicaragua, chose this time to protect that country, where the hurricane caused no deaths and only isolated damage.

Let’s remember what we felt on Thursday afternoon, before we knew Otto would be tragic. We knew the hurricane had made landfall on Nicaragua’s southern Caribbean coast and we thought that, once more, we had dodged a bullet. I read some comments of frustration and criticism leveled at the government’s preventive operations, arguing that these were excessive. In the Central Valley the light rain and breeze were almost pleasant. If not for the hard work of authorities and the media, we would have thought it was a delightful afternoon, because the roads were even clear of traffic.

Bah – a hurricane isn’t such a big deal. Look! There are no problems on the Caribbean coast. The waves on TV were the usual, except that they were narrated in anxious tones by some of my colleagues. At 5 p.m. we felt victorious as a country, blessed by the angels and by La Negrita. I remember reading jokes, messages of relief and thanks, questions about the “alarmist” preparations of President Luis Guillermo Solís.

What’s more, I interviewed a serious official from the National Emergency Commission (CNE) who said that while the alert was maintained, the initial scare had passed. I included this comment in a story I wrote for El País with the title “El huracán Otto perdona a Costa Rica” (“Hurricane Otto pardons Costa Rica”) and I sent it off at dusk. A few minutes later I let them know that they should hold the story for a moment, that there were reports from the Northern Zone. I saw those reports in not terribly reliable sources, but it was better to wait. Just a moment, just a moment, almost ready. Let’s see…

At that very moment the tragedies were occuring. A swollen creek ripped an 8-month-old baby from the arms of his mother. A river took a house, two or three, as if they were made of paper. In one of those houses was a mother and her son. A river rushed out as if drunk from consuming so much water and vomited brown debris all over a town where nearly 17,000 people live. Upala, with the upaleños inside, was torn down the way a sand castle is torn down when a wave comes, with one difference: no one expected it. Let’s be honest. In Upala, no one expected this, and in the Central Valley we didn’t think the Northern Zone was so vulnerable, mostly because we often forget that the Northern Zone exists.

That’s why at 5 p.m. on Thursday we thought that Costa Rica had made it through unscathed, because the Central Valley had made it through unscathed, and our priority areas as well. That was good, of course, but the hurricane continued its path toward the Pacific, carrying various towns with it. We found out little by little – through a news report, a desperate and anonymous WhatsApp audio clip, a stranger’s post on Twitter. (Of course, I don’t think there are too many upaleños on Twitter.) Later came the official confirmations, the facts and the presidential announcement: “There are people dead and missing.” The face of President Solís was a face of sadness and rage.

At that point I did send my news to Madrid: Hurricane Otto had not pardoned Costa Rica after all.

The second myth had been torn down. Costa Rica is much more than the Central Valley and the regions that the Central Valley decides to watch in any given situation. Costa Rica lost its undefeated record in hurricanes, on one of its neglected flanks. Otto sank its poisoned arrow in Costa Rica’s heel, on the edge of the map, so far and so close.

At dawn on Friday, at first light, we began to see our tragedy. The press and the government brought us scenes of destruction, everything that had happened while here in the Central Valley we thought we were undefeated, invincible or “blessed.”

That’s when we remembered that we are also one people; that we, too, are the people of our coasts and borders; that we have more accents, more geographies and more realities than we sometimes realize. The after-the-fact solidarity we have seen in the past few days is good evidence of this.

We also remembered that there are more political leaders we need to hold accountable, because I suspect that even local leaders are vallecentralistas in their preventive logic and wait for San José to provide, order and aid. For example, I wonder if the mayor of Upala and others did their due diligence in preparing their towns for the hurricane.

The good thing is that now we are more conscious of our map, less naive about the dangers that a changing Mother Nature brings us. The bad thing is that we are learning the hard way. The very worst thing would be to keep tripping over the same stone.

Read our complete Hurricane Otto coverage here.

Álvaro Murillo is an experienced journalist who specializes in political coverage and has written for La Nación, Semanario Universidad and El País. In “No Sugar, Please,” his twice-monthly column, he explores politics in its broadest terms, from the halls of government to community life. Connect with him on Twitter.

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Just for the record, someone was killed during Hurricane Joana. (Not that it is relevant to the discussion.)

I am not aware of what happened this year, but I do recall that in 1988, buses were sent to Limon to evacuate it. The whole country did organize to protect Limon from damage. I trust people were similarly evacuated this year. (I am in the process of grief so I am not totally immersed in the news or other things. I contributed financially to the red cross, but felt no need to announce it on social media.)

In any case, it is normal for the people that were not affected to “breathe a sigh of relief.” Nothing wrong with this. These same people have contributed goods and money as well. From all over the country, people are organizing care for those affected. As the author wrote, “That’s when we remembered that we are also one people; that we, too, are the people of our coasts and borders; that we have more accents, more geographies and more realities than we sometimes realize. The after-the-fact solidarity we have seen in the past few days is good evidence of this.” I think Costa Ricans and foreigners living here consistently offer aide and care for those affected by natural catastrophes.

I guess I am not clear about the overall point of the article. Maybe to not joke about Costa Rica? Or about weather in Costa Rica? Or for Ticos to take their comments more seriously?

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Derryl Hermanutz

My son called from Canada, fearing for our lives because of international news reports that “Costa Rica” was being devastated by Hurricane Otto. This is the equivalent of reporting that “the United States” is being devastated, when a hurricane hits South Florida. Nobody is denying the tragedy of the affected regions. The complaint is about the false perceptions that are created by media reports making the storm sound like a much wider threat than it actually was. Here in Jaco, people were led to believe they should brace for hurricane force winds and torrential rains. The reality: perfectly calm and overcast, with no rain or wind at all.

Maybe emotionally and spiritually “we are all one”. But geographically we get very different weather on the Atlantic and Pacific sides of this country. Even the south, central and north Pacific are different climate zones. The central Pacific doesn’t get Guanacaste winds and droughts or Osa rains, for example. A national disaster alert and media exaggeration created a false perception of a “national” weather event that was in reality a regional weather event, not unlike other Atlantic hurricanes. Here in Costa Rica we all now know what really happened — and what didn’t happen. But the rest of the world is left with the false perception that “Costa Rica” was devastated by Hurricane Otto.

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Elsira Murillo

Proudly in Costa Rica and can say, I was here during the Hurricane Otto. This is an excellent post and reflects the ugly truth we faced in the North areas of Costa Rica. Even days after the tragedy, pain and desolation is what you witness in Upala. Like you, I saw those comments literally “making fun” of the Hurricane just a few hours before the worst was about to come. Beyond critics and loss, government has made a good job considering it’s limitations in terms of experience and resources. Once again, you can see people united trying to help in front of a few that only cause damage. Would be nice to see the reality “inside” the impacted area about how many are acting now, is this solidarity spirit all that can be found now or there is more on those communities… Whatever you encounter out there, would be a privilege to read it. Thanks kindly and best regards from Ciudad Quesada, San Carlos.

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Ken Morris

The writer might want to mull the nationalism assumed in this article. Yes, it’s nice that people from regions of Costa Rica unaffected by Otto assist those in the regions that are affected, but I wonder why the moral sentiment that favors cooperation among diverse peoples within national boundaries stops at the nation’s borders. I would be much more excited to read about Tico-Nica cooperation in response to the hurricane than I am about cooperation among Ticos. My growing suspicion is that the kind of nationalism assumed in this article is actually more harmful than the localism it objects to. And btw, I don’t believe for a minute that Ticos are the only people who embrace this kind of misconstrual of nationalism. It’s a global problem, I’m afraid.

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