During a routine visit to one of our Disaster Prevention Pilot Projects in the city of Barranquilla, Colombia and a fast conversation with German Manota — the right-hand man of Barranquilla's Mayor — I was quickly introduced to the devastation that is currently occurring here.
Every day, houses are falling due to the unstable land that they were built upon. The hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico have sent large amounts of precipitation to Barranquilla, surpassing what is common and establishing the wettest season in history — a wet season that is expected to last until March of 2011. As usually happens in circumstances like this, the poorest communities are the most affected:
- More than 8,600 families have been impacted
- 946 houses have collapsed
- 837 buildings have been categorized as at-risk and abandoned
The District Government is doing all it can to respond to this large-scale disaster, distributing emergency kits and emergency funds to the affected families. Unfortunately, the disaster has far surpassed what the government can handle.
German is quick to catch me up to speed and whisks me away to the worst-hit and poorest area, a community called El Bosque (ironically translated "The Forest"), comprised of vulnerable and marginalized families (i.e. internally-displaced people, female heads-of-households and ethnic minorities). German is in charge of signing the checks to provide some emergency income to the worst hit families. In the meantime, I am pulled away by some of the affected population and "toured" through the destruction.
This landslide is peculiar, as the slide is not from the top land cover, but instead from the below-ground substrate. The heavy rains have liquified the below-ground, leaving pockets that are filled by the above-ground, effectively creating a focused-area earthquake. The destruction is amazing and words can't come close to describing it.
All that the families can do is take out their belongings and look for temporary housing. All I could do was call Country Director Gary Burniske and get the news out to Mercy Corps Headquarters.
That night I returned to Bogotá and, the next morning, sat down with the Gary and Hugo Gomez — our Disaster Response Consultant — to define a strategy and find out our niche in this disaster. An action plan was quickly developed, adapting a plan that was implemented last year in Soacha, and Headquarters funds were generated to provide some emergency relief for this month. The District and Departmental Governments pledged their financial and logistical support. Our response seeks to help out at least 1,000 families in El Bosque.
I arrive on site tomorrow, with a three-day objective of setting up the response team, establishing a temporary office center, finalizing working agreements with the local authorities, and identifying the community leaders that will be supporting our efforts. It amazes me that so few know of this extensive disaster.
Thanks to the Field Office and Headquarters for such a fast turn-around to respond to this silent disaster. I'll keep you posted!