Nicaragua's Floods: digging Out From Disaster (reprint from 1982)
Normally the rainy period begins in May. People welcome it with joy, bidding farewell to the season of dry, hot and dusty weather. Nonetheless, the force and the intensity of the rains can quickly and unpredictably get transformed into a national tragedy. Envío team
When the rains began on Friday, May 21, everybody thought that the rainy season had finally arrived and people welcomed the cooling effect of the cloud cover and the end of the long, hot, dusty, dry season. It was not long, however, before it became apparent that these were not just normal rains because it rained and rained incessantly. Wednesday, May 26, was the most intense day of rain and by then major flooding had struck all of western Nicaragua, particularly around Chinandega and Leon. The welcomed rains had turned into a national natural disaster, the worst since the earthquake of 1972 and the worst flooding ever recorded in Nicaragua.
In this article, we will present a number of different themes concerning the latest disaster to strike Nicaragua:
1- A report on the extent of the damages based on new information from the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America.
2- The situation of refugees and other effects of the floods in Chinandega and Corinto, as well as other measures taken in these towns in response to the emergency.
3- The response to the emergency by the mass organizations and other governmental bodies.
4- International aid received for flood relief.
Our purpose in this article is, on the one hand, to emphasize something that has not been covered adequately in the international press: the extent of physical damage caused by the flooding despite relatively little loss of life; and, on the other hand, to demonstrate the functioning of the mass organizations and of a government at the service of its people in confronting the emergency.
1- Extent of the Damages
According to figures of the Nicaraguan Meteorological Service, during the period of May 21-31, a total of 54.5 inches of rain fell in the department of Chinandega for an average of five inches of rain per day. On May 26, the day of heaviest rainfall, a total of 21 inches of rain fell in the 24 hour period. This amount of rain in this ten-day period is almost ten times more than the average of 6.3 inches and it is also almost four times more than the previous high for this period of 14.6 inches recorded in 1967. the amount of rain which fell in this ten-day period in Chinandega represents 70% of the total average annual rainfall.
Initial government estimates of the flood damages amounted to approximately $183 million, primarily concentrated in damage to infrastructure and losses in agricultural production. Eighty persons lost their lives, approximately 4500 houses were destroyed and another 5500 damaged, and 60.000 people were left homeless.
In Honduras, which also suffered from the rains, damages were estimated at only $20-25 million while some 160 people died. What immediately strikes one’s attention is the substantially higher number of deaths in Honduras despite much less serious flooding. Some critics of the Nicaraguan government suggested that it was inflating the figures of the extent of damages, but information recently released by the UN Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA) shows that the government’s estimates were in fact very conservative.
ECLA estimates for total direct and indirect damages are almost $350 million, substantially higher than the government’s initial estimate of $183 million (See Table I). The damage to infrastructure includes 21 bridges destroyed and 33 others damaged, 57 culverts destroyed or damaged, landslides, almost one half of the country’s paved roads damaged (732 kilometers) and many road shoulders washed away. Equally important was the damage done to the country’s railway system, which will require laying a whole new track system in some areas, which could take up to two years to complete.
The agricultural sector was the other major area of damage, the extent of which will probably not be felt entirely until next year at the termination of the ’82-83 agricultural cycle. According to the government’s preliminary report, damages include:
- - Loss of 60% of irrigated corn production.
- - Loss of 300 manzanas of vegetable production.
- - 90% of the land plowed for cotton planting must be replowed.
- - Loss of 60% of banana plantations.
- - Loss of 30% of the first plantings of sorghum, rice, beans, potatoes, plantains, and yucca, all basic consumer staples.
- - Loss of 10 days of milk production in inaccessible areas.
- - Loss of 10 million pounds of sugar that could not be harvested.
- - 6000 head of cattle killed.
One of the major problems now facing the agricultural sector is in reaching areas to replant or plow where bridges or culverts may have been destroyed, and in carrying out these operations in a timely fashion to assure maximum production. Particularly important is the cotton crop, which will suffer significant loss in yield if it is not planted on time. Of incalculable cost is the loss of fertile topsoil carried away by the floods from lands which had not yet been planted as well as the destruction of terraces and irrigation ditches.
In terms of foreign exchange, the ECLA figures show that Nicaragua lost $36 million in reduced exports and that to repair the damages will entail an expenditure of $ 91 million in imports. The obvious effect of these figures will be to widen the gap in the balance of payments deficit, which is already of serious proportions. In addition, unofficial estimates provided to IHCA by the International Reconstruction Fund (FIR) indicate that growth in the gross domestic product in 1982 will probably only be 1% at maximum.
We recently went to Chinandega and Corinto, two of the areas hardest hit by the floods, to see for ourselves the current situation. Even after a month, the physical destruction is awesome.
Chinandega is a city divided by the Río Acome, and the floods destroyed all the bridges connecting the two halves of the city. One of these bridges was a huge, reinforced concrete bridge, 100 meters (more than 300 feet) long and 7 meters (21 feet) high. The waters rose over the bridge, finally carrying a section of it more than 50 meters (50 yards) downstream and burying it in sand. Between 300 and 350 houses, mostly along the riverbank, were destroyed. Twenty-eight people lost their lives in the Chinandega area.
Those left homeless were quickly given new lots by the government. The only restriction on the lots is that the family cannot sell or rent them, a precaution to prevent speculation. Families who realized the seriousness of the situation in time were able to take their houses apart and move at least part of the materials and their possessions away from the food area. These people have already reassembled a house on their new lots. Many were not so fortunate and now have a plot of land but nothing else. Food is being provided to the victims, but many literally were left with only the clothes on their backs. Very few were able to salvage cooking utensils, dishes, and other household necessities. Slowly these kinds of supplies are coming in and are being distributed.
Because of the limitations of the Nicaraguan government and the relatively small amount of international aid, the government has been unable to give much in the way of building materials. Most can obtain, in one way or another, a few boards for the sides of the house but the biggest problem is in obtaining zinc for the roof - a necessity complicated by the fact that it is not manufactured in Nicaragua and thus foreign exchange, already precariously scarce, has to be used to acquire it.
The area of the donated lots has other problems as well. Because it was not previously planned as a development area, as yet there is no drinking water, nor electricity, nor latrines. There is also a problem of security, protecting one’s few possessions while leaving to work or look for materials. The problems seem almost insurmountable, but the mass organizations working with government offices and volunteer brigades are devoting all their time and energy to confronting the problems.
In Corinto, there are two results of the flood which impress visitors with their magnitude. The railroad, principal means of transportation between Nicaragua’s most important port and the rest of the country, is completely paralyzed. Four kilometers out of the depot the tracks are completely covered with sand. Worse in terms of reconstruction problems is the destruction of the railroad bridge connecting the island of Corinto with the mainland. In addition to that repair – or reconstruction – the whole train route will have to be moved further inland, as the shore is now at the train tracks. Two years is the estimate given for the required reconstruction.
The other major destruction is to houses. As in most natural disasters in third-world countries, the greatest impact is on the poorest sectors of the population. In the Nicaraguan disaster, this was certainly the case. The majority of the people whose homes were swept away were the poorest and most marginalized, who lived in humble one-room wooden houses on the banks of the many rivers that cross Nicaragua. Most had no floor and certainly no plumbing. Water came from a faucet in the yard. The people are mostly unemployed or underemployed. Many homes were headed by women. One woman who lost all of her possessions also lost her means of earning a living – a charcoal burner on which she cooked tortillas to sell.
The exception to the norm that the poor were the hardest hit was in Corinto. A row of summer homes on the beach is completely gone; only a few foundations and an occasional crumbling wall are left of the vacation retreats. While the owners of these homes live in other cities and have other homes, the families who served as caretakers are now also left homeless and without recourses – so even in this instance, the poor suffer most.
In other areas of the country, land was available to give to the victims. On the island of Corinto, the most densely populated city in Nicaragua, there is no available land and thus the transfer of the affected people to areas further away is more difficult, even in terms of the willingness of the people to resettle in a new area. Some people in Corinto are still in emergency shelters set up in schools and churches.
As mentioned above, one surprising statistic, considering the tremendous amount of material damages, is the relatively low loss of life. Honduras had comparatively little property damage but had over twice as many casualties. Almost everyone with whom we spoke – government officials, the Chairperson of the National Disaster Committee, people involved in the rescue operations, victims, international observers – all attributed this to the organizations of the country at the time the storm struck. Ironically, this can be credited in part to the external threat and bellicosity by the United States which precipitated the State of Emergency and activation of Civil Defense procedures. This meant that the entire country was already organized with designated emergency procedures and persons responsible for the various areas such as food distribution, shelters, first aid, etc.
As soon as the magnitude of the storm became apparent, the emergency mechanism was activated. Local CDS (block committees) heads mobilized rescue teams for the primary task of getting to people who were stranded.
In this important task, the work of the Search and Rescue Team of the Nicaragua Air Force cannot be underestimated. This team, which is made up of only fifteen people (pilots, navigators, etc.) flew over ninety rescue missions in the week of primary emergency in the Managua area alone. This involved the rescue of 1500 people, some of whom had been stranded for several days. Twelve children were rescued who had been floating on a raft for three days. All of these rescue operations had to be made by lowering a rescuer on a rope from a hovering helicopter, picking up a person and then raising them to the helicopter. Visibility was less than 150 meters. Many people, still remembering the terror that helicopters brought under Somoza, were frightened to leave their land and few belongings. The Nicaraguan campesino is very attached to his land; thus the work of the rescuers was often to calm fears and convince the people to cooperate in the effort to help them.
Ground rescues were carried out by CDS teams cooperating with the police, volunteer police force, army, reserve forces, and the militia. Often ropes were stretched across ditches or rivers overflowing with raging waters and, one at a time, people were guided across to safety. The efforts were not always successful. A well-loved Cuban volunteer was swept away and drowned when the small group with whom she had been stranded was being rescued.
During the storm, people in neighborhoods combined their efforts to try to minimize the destruction. In Ciudad Sandino, a children’s center had just been completed on one side of the new market. It had not even been officially inaugurated. By the second day of continual downpour, the channel diverted from its course and began inching toward the foundation of the children’s center. The neighborhood got a volunteer crew to begin filling sandbags and the citizens worked all night trying to save the center. Heavy equipment was unable to get into the area until the following day. Unfortunately, the efforts were no match for the force of the water and the children’s center was partially destroyed.
After the critical period passed, the long-term process of coping with the needs of the people and the destroyed infrastructure of the country began, and again the organization of the people was much in evidence.
One of the most important tasks was responding to the threat of disease and other health needs of the food victims. The existence in the barrios of health brigades made coping with these needs easier. Inoculations were begun as soon as possible to prevent typhoid and other epidemics. Treatment centers were set up to respond to the increased incidence of diarrhea, gastro-intestinal disorders, respiratory infections, etc. Attention was given to both the treatment and the prevention of malaria. Health needs continue to be a concern and a priority in caring for the victims in the new settlements.
Looting, always a problem in circumstances like the one experienced here, was kept to a minimum with the participation of the Volunteer Police Force and the Voluntary Night Watch.
Price gouging and speculation are also frequent companions of disasters. While the heavy rains were still falling, prices of basic items began to climb, especially in many small stores. The government has established price ceilings on basic products but lacks the personnel to effectively enforce the regulations. To combat this, the CDS’s have volunteers to help watch for illegal price increases so the people in the barrios will not be at the mercy of unscrupulous merchants. Prices on perishable items as yet have no effective control and continue to be a cause of complaints among the people.
In work centers, as well as neighborhoods, volunteer brigades were organized to do road repair, clean flood control channels, and other community works. People went into factories which had been inundated and shoveled out mud while workers tackled the job of trying to repair the damaged machines.
Because many of the flood victims are women who are heads of households, there was and is a great necessity for help in reconstructing their houses. Again, work sites, CDS’s and church groups have organized to devote Sundays to volunteer work for those unable to do it. Marathons were conducted by radio stations to collect clothing, kitchen utensils and other household items, as well as money.
One concern of the “New Nicaragua”, in terms of principles as well as economic necessity, is the avoidance of creating a dependency on the government, a “welfare-state”. Neither the government nor the Disaster Committee wants to give food to people indefinitely, just as a dole with no dignity involved. Therefore the government has begun a “food for work” system where the flood victims will continue to receive food, but in exchange for work, either in their own new settlements or in community projects.
We spoke with one woman who has been in Nicaragua during the flooding of Lake Managua in 1970, the earthquake in 1972 and this disaster. For her, the community organization was the outstanding difference this time. Also, in 1970 when Lake Managua flooded leaving hundreds homeless, the response of the government was quite different. Victims were living in tents in the center of the city for several months. When they were finally moved, many to OPEN 3 which later became Ciudad Sandino, it became a profitable business venture. One of Somoza’s associates, a wealthy landowner named Blandón, sold the flood victims their parcels of land, resulting in a great source of funds for him.
When the earthquake struck on December 23, 1972 in the middle of the night, leaving 10,000 dead, Somoza did not appear for the first few days. It was as if there was no authority or government. Looting was rampant. The church stepped in and began rescue and assistance. When the government finally “emerged”, they stopped all church efforts and took over. Aid began pouring in from all over the world, but it soon became obvious that little was getting to the people. Some governments finally made the stipulation that if their arriving supplies went to the government, they would not allow the plane to be unloaded. There were never accurate calculations done of the damages suffered from the earthquake nor publication of the totals of international aid received, since a large percentage of that aid lined the pockets of the Somocista inner circle.
As of June 22, the National Disaster Committee, headed by the Minister of Social Security and Welfare, Reynaldo A. Tefel, had received donations in cash and in kind totaling only $3,180,000. Other Nicaraguan agencies, including the Red Cross, CEPAD (Protestant Committee for Aid and Development), CARITAS and others had received another $1,688,250.
There have been various explanations for the comparatively small amount of international aid. Many equate loss of life with extent of a disaster; therefore, since loss of life was not excessive, little attention was focused on the disaster. One British disaster specialist form Oxfam-U.K. commented that the very fact that Nicaragua responded so well to the emergency may have reduced the amount of aid it received. There was also much competition in terms of news coverage from the fighting in the Falklands and the Middle East. There is a strong feeling here that the lack of information in the exterior and a deliberate minimization of the damages are part of the much publicized and documented U.S. strategy to destabilize the Nicaraguan government. In line with this, leaders of the counterrevolutionary movement in the exterior have lobbied against sending aid to Nicaragua.
Obviously the needs here are overwhelming. This is on a people-to-people level among the thousands of families left with nothing. It is also on a massive level in the needs of repairing the damaged infrastructure. Bridges, roads, factories, railroads, etc., are in ruins. There is a pressing need for the construction of a sea wall in Corinto to prevent the continual encroachment of the sea.
There is an additional problem of more people living on the precarious edge of the redefined river banks. Nicaragua is in the beginning of the rainy season, and a few heavy rains will wash away many more houses. The government is trying to plan for this eventuality while dealing with the more immediate needs of those already affected. As in the damage from the war of liberation of 1979, many of the needs are for the post-emergency period of reconstruction, and Nicaragua is counting on continuing international solidarity to help it through this latest challenge.