Colombia: Officials forecast more rain for first quarter of 2011

The accumulated debris and loose dirt slid due to the rains and razed homes in the Calle Vieja section of the La Gabriela neighborhood. (Hugo Machín for Infosurhoy.com)

The accumulated debris and loose dirt slid due to the rains and razed homes in the Calle Vieja section of the La Gabriela neighborhood. (Hugo Machín for Infosurhoy.com)

By Hugo Machín for Infosurhoy.com—06/01/2011

MEDELLÍN, Colombia – Paula Correa watched from her home as a landslide buried dozens of people in the Calle Vieja section of the La Gabriela neighborhood on the afternoon of Dec. 5.

“The first five people injured under the debris we rescued ourselves,” said Correa, 24, mother of a 4-year-old son.

Eighty-two were killed by the catastrophe in the municipality of Bello, north of Medellín, according to the government of the department of Antioquia.

President Juan Manuel Santos, who was in New York when the disaster struck, visited the site two days later and told reporters what happened had been “a tragedy foretold.”

He said there would be a housing plan to build 1,000 units and relocate families from the La Gabriela neighborhood and its surrounding areas.

“The national government is doing everything within its reach,” Santos said. “It is going to do even more.”

The Bello Mayor’s Office ordered the evacuation of 50 families on Dec. 27 after determining their houses were at risk of being buried by another landslide.

John Freddy Rendón, director of Antioquia’s Administrative Department for Disaster Prevention and Recovery (DAPARD), said the rains caused the hill, made up of an accumulation of debris deposited over a course of 15 years and located next to a highway, to crumble.

He added the construction of a washing station for heavy trucks on top of the artificial hill made it even more conducive to a landslide.

“[The hill] filters through the same way a cube of sugar does when set in a bit of water,” said Elkin Cardona Moncada, president of the Community Action Board of the La Orquídea neighborhood, next to La Gabriela.

The highest number of deaths (123), wounded (92) and missing (41) were reported in Antioquia, according to the Ministry of the Interior and Justice’s Risk Management Directorate. More than 20,200 families and about 94,800 individuals have been affected by the severe weather, which has caused floods and landslides.

In Antioquia, 107 of the department’s 125 municipalities have been affected by the La Niña weather phenomenon, local government officials said.

The government of Antioquia said it has been authorized by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to use US$42 million from a US$60 million loan to go toward repairing the 147 roads and 380 road sections that were damaged.

Colombia’s first rainy season usually starts in March and lasts until June, whereas the second season starts in September and generally ends in December. But the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Phenomena (IDEAM) forecasted another three months of precipitation due to La Niña.

So far, a total of 2,155,386 people have been affected, 284 have died, and 3,173 houses have been destroyed nationwide during the worst rainy season recorded in the past four decades, according to the government.

The unusually long rainy season has also flooded 1.3 million hectares (3.2 million acres) of land for agriculture and cattle farming, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Reconstruction efforts could require an investment of about US$5 billion, according to preliminary estimates by the government.

Land movements in elevated areas with a very high risk of landslides, and flooding from the Cauca, Atrato and Magdalena rivers, are the biggest dangers that persist in the department of Antioquia, said Margarita Restrepo, executive director of the Corporación Antioquia Presente, an NGO that offers support to victims of natural disasters.

“In Medellín, there are 32,000 families living in high risk areas, according to the SIMPAD (Medellín’s disaster relief agency),” she said. “What happened in La Gabriela is likely to happen again.”

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