Security Forces Provide Crucial Assistance After Central American Floods
By Dialogo October 28, 2011
SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — The final month of the rainy season has pulverized Central America. Throughout the region, torrential rains have demolished roadways, swept houses from their foundations, drowned crops and killed at least 115 people in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
As the humanitarian disaster continues, Central American countries are turning to their military and security forces to assist with evacuations, deliver food supplies, transport victims to shelters and rescue citizens in life-threatening situations.
“Guatemala is being battered by constant rains and the true power of Mother Nature,” said Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom in early October, shortly after the rains began. “We are in a state of emergency that will require all sectors of the government, the Congress, emergency organizations, and military and security forces to contribute to reduce the number of deaths and tragedies caused by such powerful forces of nature. Working together must be our response to this emergency.”
In Guatemala, the death toll reached 38, and Colom reported that more than 500,000 citizens were affected by the rains. In response to the president’s declaration, members of the Gen. Felipe Cruz paratrooper brigade — along with the Guatemalan Air Force and Guatemalan Air Club —fanned out to deliver relief to rural regions. Hundreds of soldiers in fatigues and black berets loaded helicopters with orange bags of rice, beans, potatoes and hygienic goods and airlifted them to small towns along the Pacific Ocean, which received some of the most damaging rains.
In the mountainous towns of northern Guatemala, members of the Western Inter-Institutional Force — a branch of the military — assisted in restoring the Pacific coastal highway that connects the towns to central Guatemala and transferred hundreds of residents to nearby shelters. Landslides on the highway trapped many residents in rising waters; soldiers cleared debris off the road and moved flood victims to shelters at nearby schools and churches.
As October draws to a close, Guatemalan forces continue to repair damages throughout the country and help prepare communities in the event of future rains caused by Hurricane Rina, which at press time was bearing down on Belize and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
“We are looking at a two-part issue,” said Guatemalan Defense Minister Juan José Ruiz. “We are still in the process of attending to citizens affected by the rains and trying to return to them to their homes, and at the same time taking preventive steps to prepare communities in the eastern part of the country for the effects of the hurricane. We will continue to collaborate with the government and emergency services to make sure we are prepared for future catastrophes.”
El Salvador’s military as well as its Ministry of Defense were also called upon as rains pounded the San Salvador metropolitan area and communities on the Pacific coast. The rains, caused by a tropical depression, left more than 30 people dead in El Salvador and another 50,000 homeless. Damages are estimated at $650 million, equal to 3 percent of the country’s GDP.
In the disaster’s wake, Defense Minister David Munguía and top military brass visited Bajo Lempa, a low-lying coastal region often subjected to flooding. Members of the army set up shelters in areas of higher elevation, helped flood victims evacuate and brought in truckloads of food and water to affected communities.
The Air Force also assisted evacuation efforts in Bajo Lempa, bringing in several helicopters to rescue flood victims and carry them to nearby shelters. It also delivered food and supplies, as well as power generators to supply communities with power lost in the storms.
“We must not forget that this is precisely the role of the Armed Forces in El Salvador and we should expect nothing less,” resident José Heriberto Ortíz wrote on the military’s website. “My sincerest thank you for the work done by our army during a time of need.”
El Salvador’s emergency services reported Oct. 24 that more than 60 percent of residents had returned to their homes, and that evacuation shelters throughout the country were emptying out. National schools also reopened on Oct. 24 after nearly two weeks of closures due to rains.
In Nicaragua, rains resulted in flash floods in Managua, as well as much of the northern Pacific region. In response to the flooding, 42 members of the Nicaraguan Army’s Humanitarian and Rescue Unit [Unidad Humanitaria y de Rescate, or UHR] loaded trucks with 1,400 food packets, 98 quintales of rice, 140 quintales of corn, 210 quintales of beans and 1,400 liters of cooking oil for transport to the municipality of El Jicaral, in the department of León.
“During flooding, the most urgent operation is to get clean drinking water and basic food supplies to the communities,” said the UHR’s Col. Marco Sequeira. “In order to do so, we must deploy officers in the Army, Navy, and Air Force as quickly as possible to reduce the number of potential casualties.”
After the first wave of rains flooded much of Nicaragua, military forces were sent to the Caribbean side of the country on Oct. 22 to begin evacuations of citizens as Tropical Storm Rina threatened to hit the coast. The next day, ships of the Nicaraguan Navy began evacuating residents of 23 small towns along the eastern coast.
During an Oct. 23 evacuation mission, a naval ship with 27 residents from the town of Sandy Bay Norte was caught in the approaching storm. The ship and passengers were reported missing and national anxieties rose as Rina was upgraded from a tropical storm to a hurricane. Two days later however, a fishing boat located the vessel and guided it back to shore. All the passengers were alive and in stable condition.
“We have a well-trained group of sailors that know not to panic in potential crisis situations,” said Col. Danilo Blanco, chief of the Northern Nicaragua Military Command. “They were able to maneuver the ship out of the path of the most threatening storms and keep all passengers onboard and safe.”
On Oct. 25, regional presidents and foreign ministry representatives met in San Salvador to discuss emergency relief efforts and seek help from countries outside Central America.
“No country in this region has the financial clout to pay for the damages caused by the incessant rains, and it is essential that we bond together as an isthmus to generate relief funds and plans for recovery,” said Funes, estimating it would take $1.5 billion to repair the damages caused by the near month-long storms. “It will require everyone chipping in, which includes every nation in Central America, as well as the international community.”