Heavy rains and flooding: Colombia's Katrina?

BOGOTA, Colombia — To inspect his cattle ranch, German Guerrero donned a surgical face mask, grabbed a pair of oars and jumped into a fiberglass boat.

Overland travel was no longer an option. Even breathing was difficult. Last month, a dike broke along the Bogota River and fetid black water, contaminated with raw sewage and industrial waste, engulfed Guerrero’s farm.

Guerrero and his farm hands spent most of their time rowing so their outboard motor wouldn’t snag on the hedges and barbed-wire fences just below the water's surface. Guerrero saved most of his cattle but wanted to find out what happened to his house, his milking machines and his 14 pet cats.

Guerrero is one of the latest victims of Colombia’s worst rainy season in decades. Floods and landslides have killed 161 people, destroyed thousands of homes and put vast tracts of coffee, cotton and sugar cane underwater. Nonstop rains have wreaked havoc in 28 of the country’s 32 states.

Some are calling the disaster “Colombia’s Katrina.”

Yet few people outside Colombia have noticed, partly because the flooding has unfolded incrementally since heavy rains began pelting the country in March. In fact, the Bogota-based media largely ignored the tragedy until last month when flood waters began pouring into capital neighborhoods as well as ranches and flower farms on the outskirts of the city.

All told, some 1.3 million people have either lost or sustained significant damage to their homes. 

In the town of Sucre in northern Colombia, police officers patrol the flooded downtown aboard wooden canoes. Because of washouts, major highways have been shut down in 10 states. During one all-day downpour in November, Bogota received more rain than it usually does in the entire month.

President Juan Manuel Santos calls it “the worst rainy season in our history” and has made urgent pleas for international aid, saying the country needs at least $2.6 billion.

“So many people are suffering,” Santos said in a recent speech. “We never imagined it would be this bad.”

Scientists attribute the intense rainfall to the weather phenomenon known as La Nina, which has caused unusually cold temperatures in the Pacific Ocean along the Equator. And the flooding could get worse. Forecasters predict the wet weather will continue through Colombia’s dry season, which usually starts in November, and merge with next year's rainy season.

But many Colombians say the blame goes beyond Mother Nature to government officials and building contractors. Inadequate drainage means that even brief rain showers turn the streets of Bogota, Cartagena and many other cities into lakes. Developers have been allowed to build tract homes and apartment buildings in floodplains.

As Heloina Castillo and other volunteers filled sandbags to protect their homes from the encroaching Bogota River, Castillo said the housing project never should have been built so close to the waterway.

“This is the riverbed,” Castillo said. “Rivers always take back their land.”

What’s more, some of the country’s main rivers have been re-engineered, making them more prone to flooding.

For example, several smaller streams have been rerouted into the Bogota River, which is also a receptacle for trash and agricultural runoff. Thus, even though the city of Bogota sits 8,600 feet high in the Andes Mountains, massive earthen embankments are required to keep the Bogota River from overflowing.

Guerrero, the rancher, claims the Bogota River should have been dredged to give it more capacity. Pleas by local farmers to reinforce the dikes were ignored. Yet when they began constructing their own levees, Guerrero said authorities threatened them with stiff fines for building without permits.

The police also failed to stop looters who, like modern-day pirates, loaded household goods onto makeshift rafts. As Guerrero’s boat approached his ranch, one of his workers spotted a suspected looter and scared him away with a blast from his shotgun.

At the farm, Guerrero pointed to waterlogged milk tanks and grain storage bins. He counted seven dead cows floating in the water. Guerrero tried to enter his bedroom to recover his passport but the water was too high. The only things he salvaged were a pair of slippers and a paperback book about the history of Egypt.

“I feel an immense sadness,” Guerrero said. “This farm is the result of 100 years of work from the time of my grandparents.”

But there was some good news. Guerrero spotted four of his cats hiding in the rafters. He put a tray of fresh water on the roof and vowed to return with cat food.

Yet Guerrero, who is 70, had no idea when he and his family would be able to move back home. Not only did he suffer an estimated $500,000 in losses, but the contaminated river water could render his land useless for years.