Biblical rains in Colombia

June 26, 2011

It’s been called Colombia’s Katrina, a full year of relentless downpours that have displaced or damaged the homes of 3.7 million people, ruptured major highways, burst dikes and killed hundreds, many in mudslides that engulfed poor communities.

With no reprieve, dry and rainy seasons have merged, with one deluge following another. In remote hamlets, police now patrol from canoes. A swath of farmland the size of Connecticut has been flooded, slamming the country’s vital flower industry and wiping out everything from rice to banana plantations.

And here just north of Bogota, the capital, Jorge Castiblanco wonders what happened to 16 of his 20 milk cows.

“It’s almost like we’re being punished,” said Castiblanco, 64, standing on his soggy farm in the country’s central savannah, which was not spared despite being 8,000 feet above sea level. “We’ve never seen anything like this.”

In Colombian literature, endless rain inundates the mythical town of Macondo, the waters playing a central role in “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” the novel by Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In real life, the torrential rains are the worst since record-keeping began nearly half a century ago, leaving Colombians asking when it will all end — and how they will dig out from all the muck.

“They say the rain will stop, that the phenomenon will end, but it doesn’t stop,” Miguel Rojas, 75, said by phone from the hamlet of Aguachica in the northeast. Officially, the rainy season has come to a close in the high Andes, but “night and day it rains,” he said.

The rains pose a financial challenge for President Juan Manuel Santos, who is closely allied with the Obama administration in the fight against drugs.

Santos has committed his government to spending billions to compensate more than 4 million people who have lost loved ones or property in a long, simmering civil conflict. Through its National Calamities Fund, the government has spent $2.5 billion on flood relief and reconstruction and plans to spend an additional $1.3 billion, a big price tag in a country with an $82 billion annual budget.

“It’s been the worst disaster that we have had in our history,” Santos said in an interview. “It has been devastating.”

The president, though, has struck an optimistic tone, saying that reconstruction efforts could provide an economic boost. “We want to take advantage of this tragedy and convert it into an opportunity,” he said.

At a news conference at the presidential palace last week, officials who have been working on relief efforts also highlighted the positive. A short film in which villagers profusely thanked the government for assistance was screened for reporters. The president handed out medals to local heroes, and the popular rocker Andres Cabas sang a song, “After the Rain.”

Many in Colombia, though, have accused the government of an erratic response.

Aid has been held up by red tape and malfeasance, with investigations opened in April against 26 mayors over allegations of misusing disaster relief funds, according to Caracol Radio.

Prosecutors are also collecting evidence against regional boards that permitted construction on flood plains, the rerouting of rivers and other projects that exacerbated flooding. Poorly constructed dikes and drainage canals collapsed or were overwhelmed under heavy rains.

“There is not just one person to blame,” Carlos Caballero, a columnist, wrote in El Tiempo, the country’s biggest paper. “Everybody is to blame, which should prompt us to a profound reflection.”

In a report assessing the response to the flooding, the Washington-based group Refugees International said that government aid agencies had been overwhelmed by the scope of the disaster, leaving “thousands of desperate and vulnerable people to survive on their own.”

The group’s report noted that the government’s family welfare institute had recently reported that 20 percent of children in shelters in the hard-hit state of Cordoba were at risk from malnutrition.

The rain here in the savannah, the high emerald plain that spreads north from Bogota, exposed how the re-engineering of waterways made matters worse.

The Bogota River, full of industrial waste and sewage and filled beyond capacity by the waters of rerouted streams, overflowed its banks and drowned farms with toxic water. The river even ruptured the floodwalls around the elite Savannah University in the Bogota suburb of Chia, ruining computers and furniture and prompting the rector to cancel classes for weeks.

As the waters receded this month, hydrologists from the Netherlands — a country accustomed to holding back the waters — were called in to help design better flood barriers.

Luis Fernando Lopez, an electrical engineer who is helping the university dig out, noted that while new flood walls would help against future high waters, the problem was that the university had been built on a flood plain. And in recent months, that flood plain had been reclaimed by nature.

Farther north in the agricultural heart of the savannah, fields and homes were covered in black water, even as the sun poked through the clouds last week. The cattle that had not been washed away still grazed, a few chewing floating clumps of grass. Greenhouses that are usually busy preparing fresh-cut flowers for export lay in ruin.

Oscar Pernillo, an official in Simijaca, rattled off the costs to his town — 55 dead head of cattle and 9,000 other animals evacuated to higher ground. He estimated that it amounted to 60 percent of the town’s economy.

A sign outside town summed up residents’ attitudes: “The government abandoned us.”

Liebendorfer is a special correspondent.

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