Reporting from Bogota, Colombia — Even as the government struggled to get emergency relief to thousands of flood victims, torrential rains continued to batter northern Colombia on Wednesday, adding to the misery caused by one of the worst natural disasters in this nation's modern history.
Weeks of rainfall — and the breach of an important canal levee — has caused flooding that has killed 257 people and affected more than 1.9 million residents, or nearly 5% of the population. An exact count of those left homeless by water damage in several parts of Colombia was unavailable, but the total is believed to be in the tens of thousands.
The collapsed levee along the Dique Canal in northern Atlantico state remained breached Wednesday, and water continued to deluge surrounding towns and farmland. In one town alone, Campo de la Cruz, 18,000 residents have been left homeless.
Responding to a plea for help from President Juan Manuel Santos, a team from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was scheduled to arrive Thursday to offer advice on how to repair the levee.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa arrived in Cali on Wednesday to offer help and inspect flood damage with Santos. The two leaders also announced the imminent restoration of diplomatic relations, which were severed after Colombian troops invaded Ecuador in 2008 to kill a rebel leader.
Government estimates of damages run up to $5 billion. More than 320,000 schoolchildren are without classrooms, and 1.5 million acres of farmland and cattle pastures have been inundated. Dozens of roads and bridges have been washed out. Officials in Cartagena said this week that most roads leading into the northern port city were closed.
Meteorologists said El Niño conditions call for heavy rains to continue through February. Health officials alerted hospitals and clinics to the possible outbreak of disease among victims exposed to the elements and scarcities of food and clean water.
"This is unprecedented," said Nadereh Lee, deputy director of USAID in Bogota, the Colombian capital. The agency so far has contributed $1.3 million to relief efforts in addition to offering the use of several helicopters and other aircraft normally deployed in counternarcotics operations. "This is more than we've dealt with in the past in Colombia."
On Tuesday, Santos used state of emergency powers granted last week to issue three decrees, including one enabling the expropriation of land for the relocation of those left homeless. He signed another decree that reallocates profits from state-owned power utilities to a special relief fund. His government is also considering financing reconstruction efforts by selling part of its 89.9% stake in the Ecopetrol oil company.
The three-member U.S. Army Corps of Engineers team will spend three days preparing an "engineering assessment" of the breached Dique Canal. Despite efforts to plug it, the breach measured more than 500 feet wide this week. The engineers will make recommendations Monday.
In a speech Tuesday in Barrancabermeja, where he dedicated a clean fuels refinery, Santos blamed the flooding on climate change, calling on the country to "understand the challenge that we have and work to protect ourselves from it."
He urged companies to adopt practices that minimize the effects of adverse weather. Referring to foreign investors, he said Colombia welcomes them as long as they accept two conditions: "social responsibility and environmental responsibility."
Santos may have been referring to claims by some scientists and environmentalists that deforestation and illegal mining are as much to blame for the flooding as heavy rainfall. In an interview Tuesday, University of Cartagena professor Jesus Olivero said the two activities are creating sediment that have clogged rivers and deltas.
One U.S. Embassy official said Wednesday that the disaster so far does not appear to warrant the level of foreign assistance seen in other recent disasters, such as after the Haiti earthquake, because "the government here is able to manage this."
The United Nations office in Chile said Tuesday that natural disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean this year have claimed 225,000 lives and caused nearly $50 billion in damage. The majority of deaths occurred in the Haiti earthquake in January, and the bulk of the dollar damage in the Chilean earthquake in February.
Kraul is a special correspondent.