The Colombian Armed Forces deployed to eastern Colombia in late June 2018 to help people at risk due to the heavy rain season. Five departments were affected: Vichada, Guainía, Guaviare, Arauca, and Casanare. The Meta, Orinoco, Bita, Inírida, Guaviare, and Negro rivers overflowed, leaving 20,000 flood victims, the Colombian Navy said.
“According to the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology, and Environmental Studies and the General Maritime Directorate, records indicate that the [Orinoco] river reached 16 meters above its overflow level,” Colombian Navy Rear Admiral Antonio José Martínez Olmos, commander of the Eastern Naval Force, told Diálogo. “This marks a historic benchmark that shows the magnitude of this disaster.”
Request for assistance
“On June 23rd, we received the first request for assistance from the National Disaster Risk Management Unit,” said Lieutenant Colonel José Luis Avendaño Hurtado, chief of Transportation and Aeromedical Evacuation Division of the Colombian Air Force’s (FAC, in Spanish) National Center for Personnel Recovery. “We started transporting assistance then. The Army, with the 28th Jungle Brigade, made available all personnel, trucks, vehicle, and air support.”
Through mid-August 2018, authorities provided more than 100 tons of supplies, such as non-perishable food, blankets, hygiene kits, tents, and water. “And there’ll be much more. We’re talking about a vast area with more than 3,000 kilometers of rivers flowing in the region and at a high flood level,” Rear Adm. Martínez said. “We also transported about 180 people [on FAC planes],” Lt. Col. Avendaño added.
The Colombian Navy, in coordination with the Army and Police, help victims transport their belongings to a safe place. The force also patrols the area to prevent robberies in houses and abandoned buildings. “Rain or shine, marines, soldiers, and police officers must reach every single part of the area to evacuate, shelter, patrol, or protect around the clock,” Rear Adm. Martínez said.
The largest floods occurred in Puerto Carreño and Puerto Inírida, capitals of Vichada and Guainía departments, respectively. Although these are the capitals of the largest Colombian departments, their communities are small.
Guainía department extends over more than 72,000 square kilometers. Roads to its capital are nonexistent. “One way to get there is via San José del Guaviare, located 1,200 km away via river, [a trip of] between 12-15 days. It can also be reached by air,” Army Colonel Pedro Antonio Segura, Risk Management Office coordinator for the Orinoquía region, told Diálogo.
“At FAC, we have helicopters, aircraft that can reach these faraway places. We are a fundamental part of this system,” Lt. Col. Avendaño said. “We used several aircraft, basically the C-40, which is a modified Boeing 737 freighter. FAC’s Eastern Air Group arrives in difficult-to-reach areas with Huey II helicopters.”
The Army and Navy have been distributing supplies transported by planes. Guainía department received more than 80 tons of humanitarian assistance through the direct support of FAC and the Navy, with the 50th Marine Corps River Battalion. “We have more than 14 flights with FAC and more than seven flights with the National Police, direct from Bogota,” Col. Segura said.
Vichada department, with more than 100,000 square kilometers, received 54 tons of aid, said Edwin Idarraga, risk management coordinator for Vichada department. Both departments also received more than one ton of chemicals to control the proliferation of disease-spreading vectors when the waters start to recede.
The joint interagency work allowed the Armed Forces to assist 70 percent of the affected population. “We have to go the extra mile with that additional 30 percent of the population, which is scattered. But now we have the capability to achieve that goal soon,” Colombian president Iván Duque said in a statement.