On Saturday, parts of Mocoa, a city in southern Colombia, were leveled by a torrent of water and debris that so far has left at least 293 people dead. Communities in Bolivia and Ecuador have been battered as well.
Credit Peru's Presidential Palace, via Reuters
BARBA BLANCA, Peru — A sheet of mud covers the village. Lampposts are bent sideways. Rooftops sit blocks from their homes. The nave of the village church is filled with sludge...
A catastrophic mudslide essentially erased Barba Blanca from the map last month. Yet somehow all 150 people who lived here in this Peruvian village managed to escape.
“A miracle,” said Diego Blanco, a 27-year-old construction worker, looking out from a hillside perch onto the ruined homes of his family members.
The calamities have drawn jitters among some of the region’s leaders who believe that the rains are linked to climate change. Rising temperatures have already led to the retreat of glaciers in the Andes and large shifts in crop cycles in Peru. On Saturday, Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, said during a visit to Mocoa that the mudslide was the latest consequence.
“We are confronting a natural disaster caused by climate change,” he said. “We need to prepare because the rains that are coming will be more intense.”
The wreckage in Peru points to an even larger problem in this part of the world: Years of economic expansion in Latin America have spurred migration and development, but these changes have not been buttressed by preparation for even the most basic natural disasters.
Peru is a prime example, experts say. Growth since the early 2000s drew thousands from rural areas to coastal desert towns and into new settlements on the outskirts of Lima looking for jobs. Many of the newcomers founded squatters’ towns on the fringes of cities.
Leopoldo Monzón, a civil engineer and urban planning expert in Peru, said many of these areas had long been unsettled precisely because they were susceptible to flash flooding. Yet some politicians developed the lands in exchange for votes from the new arrivals.
“They never thought there would be such a flood,” said Mr. Monzón, who estimates that more than 100,000 people now live in flash flooding zones around Lima alone.
Making matters worse, meteorologists say, is the arrival of a localized El Niño event, a sudden rise in ocean temperature in the Pacific, which this year has happened off the coast of South America. Normally scorched mountain towns have faced devastating mudslides, while residents of Lima, the capital, were cut off from water for five days after pumps were inundated.
The flash flooding in Peru even has a local name, huaycos, a Quechua word referring to the dry valleys where the severe floods appear without warning.
The destroyed village of Barba Blanca, however, had long known the risks.
Founded about a century ago, residents say, the village sits on a dry approach to the Andes Mountains and is home to hardscrabble mountain dwellers who named it after a loner with a white beard — a barba blanca, in Spanish — who lived somewhere nearby in the hills.
Mr. Blanco, the construction worker, was flanked by his father, Ernesto, 65, who remembered the El Niño of 1983, which sent sheets of mud sliding down a hill only a few hundred yards from the one that had recently collapsed.
“One has to be realistic,” the father said, looking down on his home, which had been hit by the mud, but not destroyed. “This will just keep on happening to us.”
Suddenly, he said, he could hear the sound of rock and mud coming down the hillside. He ran for his home and grabbed his 3-year-old daughter as his wife and two other children followed. Soon, everyone was running for higher ground.
“The amount of mud I was seeing, I never had seen before,” he said. “And it was coming in waves.”
In another part of the village, María Lazera Castrillón, a 75-year-old retiree, was starting her lunch in the home she shared with her brother when she heard the roar of the mud. She and her brother joined the flight of villagers uphill, stumbling as they went.
The villagers made it to safety and by evening took shelter in a small building owned by a nearby hydroelectric plant uphill. But the sun had set, and no one was able to see what had become of Barba Blanca.
Most people from the village were unable to sleep that night, the younger Ernesto Blanco said. As the sun rose the next day, nearly all the residents packed onto a lookout point above the village to see what had happened to their homes.
“To suddenly see the whole village covered,” said Aurora Escalante, a 60-year-old farmer, beginning to weep. “It was too much.”
Mr. Monzón, the engineering consultant, said the disaster could offer a chance for Peru’s government to promote resettlement, especially among those living in the squatters’ towns on the outskirts of Lima.
“This crisis could be an opportunity,” he said.
But for those in the mountains in Barba Blanca, the village is the only place they have known — and the only place they would live. None said they had plans to look anywhere else.
Follow Nicholas Casey on Twitter @caseysjournal.
original story HERE
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