Mocoa, a Mitigated Disaster
By Marian Romero/Diálogo May 26, 2017During the night of March 31st and the early morning hours of April 1st, heavy rains caused the Mocoa, Mulato, and San Goyaco rivers to overflow their banks in the Colombian department of Putumayo. The overwhelming force of the water caused landslides and mudslides that destroyed 17 neighborhoods in the city, as well as access roads. To date, the toll is 328 dead and more than 400 injured. The Colombian Army responded that very night when the water reached the crisis center it shared with specialized agencies such as the fire department, civil defense, and the Red Cross. Brigadier General Adolfo Hernández Martínez, commander of the 27th Jungle Brigade of the Colombian Army’s 6th Division, was in charge of organizing the military groups that arrived to rescue those affected by the floods. The Engineering Battalion in that area is located in the municipality of Puerto Asis, less than two hours from Mocoa. The detachment has squads specialized in disaster response. They wasted no time rescuing people trapped amid the mud and debris in the early morning hours. “That first response was important because the victims had a large group of soldiers from the battalion who came in with night vision goggles to rescue people who were cut off by the river currents in the most affected areas. The Army provided first aid to the victims,” Brig. Gen. Hernández said. On April 1st, the National Disaster Risk Management Unit (UNGRD, per its Spanish acronym) arrived in Mocoa, charged with coordinating the emergency response with all of the agencies that make up the national risk management system. “Per UNGRD’s directive, each government entity is responsible for rebuilding and providing support according to its specialty. In an emergency like this, agencies are not enough. The disaster outstrips local and regional capacities. That’s why the Army is the support that boosts effective response in risk management,” Brig. Gen. Hernández explained. Other units of the Colombian Army, Navy, and Air Force arrived the following day in helicopters to deliver donations, later using those helicopters in the search-and-rescue efforts. The three services provided 26 airplanes for support in the emergency. Several of the planes continued to do reconnaissance flights for weeks over rivers and streams to make timely reports on possible displacements, as the nation is still in its rainy season. Military organization and logistics are essential Tons of aid were received and cataloged by the risk response group. “Since there was so much humanitarian aid, the packages were distributed throughout Mocoa. The logistics management orchestrated by the Army allowed for an orderly delivery,” Brig. Gen. Hernández said. The emergency response was conducted without a hitch. The case of Mocoa is one of the natural disaster episodes resolved in the most organized way, precisely because military logistics were included throughout its execution. “Emergency response has become a specialty for the nation’s Armed Forces. For decades we have been training in order to take on these kinds of contingencies,” Brig. Gen. Hernández said. “The tragedy in Mocoa showed the training and readiness that our personnel have. Our soldiers know how to act efficiently in order to minimize the impact of the disaster.” Bridge construction in record time and shelters for the population One of the most important means of support to restore Mocoa’s communication with the rest of the nation was the building of a bridge over the San Antonio River. Members of the Engineering Battalion worked day and night on the 52-ton, 42.67-meter-long structure that will benefit more than 500,000 residents. Brigadier General Emilio Cardozo, commander of the Engineering Command, explained that “this bridge is the most important connecting link between the departments of Huila and Vichada, and we gave it the logistics push that the emergency required. Without that bridge, all of the aid would have had to arrive by air.” Once the rescue efforts were finished, the Army focused on issues such as improving mobility by removing rocks and mud from the roads, restoring basic services, and maintaining shelters for the victims. The Engineering Battalion was in charge of two of the 11 shelters that took in the residents during the tragedy. The larger of these was set up at the Putumayo Institute of Technology, where they provided a roof, food, and medical and psychological care for 968 people. The other smaller one was at a school in that sector. “These shelters were essential for the people affected to be able to stabilize themselves emotionally. Meanwhile, they were able to begin overcoming the impact of the tragedy and were able to set themselves up in other dwellings [with] friends or relatives, or they made use of the rental subsidies that the government offers,” Brig. Gen. Cardozo said. Stabilization, tracking, and prevention The overflowing of rivers in Mocoa brought with it tons of mud and rocks that knocked down several buildings in their path. The flooding destroyed the aqueduct, the power station, and streets and roads, among other structures. To recover damaged structures and restore the aqueduct to full service, the Army is working in coordination with other agencies specialized in rivers and climate, such as the Corporation for Sustainable Development in the Southern Amazon, the Institute of Hydrology, Weather, and Environmental Studies, and the Colombian Geological Service, among others. A helicopter has been dedicated to transporting the 450 tubes required to rebuild the aqueduct, while other units do daily monitoring of the rivers at their highest points. “According to the technical opinion, it is essential that rocks measuring three to five meters high be pulverized with explosives. This is to restore water flow in the rivers and to keep them from getting any closer to the urban center,” Brig. Gen. Hernández said. “In Colombia, we are still in the rainy season and people in this sector are fearful. The monitoring work has helped give the citizens peace of mind, because they know that every day we are working so that tragedies like these don’t happen again,” he concluded.