Friars Safe as Coastal El Niño Floods Peru

Maria Hayes Around the Province

Volunteer firefighters in northern Peru have participated in more than 400 rescues during recent months. (Photo courtesy of Chris Dunn)

LIMA, Peru – Late last month, Christopher Dunn, OFM, and a company of firefighters to whom he ministers as chaplain, were rushing to a fire at an air force base 30 minutes south of Lima when they ran into a literal roadblock — the road was gone.

Weeks of excessive rain caused by a coastal El Niño have caused flooding and mudslides in areas of Peru that rarely see rain. The three quiet rivers that twist through the mountains and into the valley where Lima is sprawled along the Pacific coast have become furious torrents of water, and arid valleys and arroyos, or dry creeks, have come to life, bringing a deluge of water and mud to Peru’s coastal plain – a desert with several small rivers and many steep valleys.

Mudslides, landslides and flooding have damaged bridges, highways, train systems and roads – like the one on which Chris was attempting to travel – and isolated villages and towns. As of March 31, more than one million people in Peru had been affected, with 101 dead and more than 142,000 homeless. Entire communities have been displaced and floods have destroyed more than 15,000 acres of crops, according to The Los Angeles Times. Extensive flooding has caused damage throughout western Peru, including in the Lurin River valley, where Carlos Sarmiento, OFM, has worked for years.

Rescue Efforts Continue
Santa Ana Friary has escaped major damage, according to Chris, and the friars are safe from landslides and floods. There are no rivers or run-off canyons near the friary, which is located in a hilly region on the southern fringe of Lima, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the Americas.

The friars have had drinking water, thanks to a large cistern on the property. Others in the capital have not been so fortunate. The main water treatment plan in Lima receives water from the Rimac River. Due to the amount of mud and debris in the river, the water company shut off the drinking water supply to all of the capital – nearly 10 million people – for most of one day, according to Chris, who has emailed several updates to the Provincial Office. Some sections of the city went without water for as many as six days. In other parts of the city, access to water is rationed to a few hours each day.

To make matters worse, Peru is in the middle of its summer season. “Temperatures in Lima are ranging from 85 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity, and weather experts are estimating that summer will extend for a month longer than usual,” said Chris. In the north, where those who have been displaced by the flooding have been placed in tent camps in the desert, “there are fears of epidemics: dengue or chikunguya fevers, or cholera and typhoid.”

The continuing rain has kept the Peruvian Fire Corps busy performing river rescues around Lima and across the country. More than 1,500 people have been evacuated via helicopters and planes from areas that were isolated due to flooding or collapsed bridges.

“The city of Piura in the north of Peru has had massive flooding,” said Chris, former pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish. “The military police and volunteer firefighters who were airlifted from Lima to Piura – a 16-hour drive along the highway – are working to get folks out of the flooded areas, especially children and older people. The firefighters have been busy in Lima, Piura, and other areas distributing drinking water, food, helping with evacuations, and performing rescue operations.”

Coastal El Niño Causes Historic Flooding
The flooding is the worst that the country has seen in 20 years, with some areas receiving 10 times the usual amount of rainfall. Farther to the north in the Piura region, a weather station in the province of Morropón recorded 43 inches of rain since January. The average rainfall is usually about four inches by early March, according to a March 10 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A 32-year-old woman named Evangelina Chamorro became a symbol of survival when she emerged from the debris in  a river after being  swept several miles in a mudslide.  (Photo courtesy of a video shared by Carlo Paredes on YouTube)

The weather pattern was caused by exceptionally warm water – as much as 6 degrees Fahrenheit above average – in the Pacific Ocean near Peru and Ecuador. The higher ocean temperatures produced more moisture that turned to rain after meeting the foothills and the western side of the Andes mountain range. Climatologists have been calling the weather pattern a “coastal El Niño.” The weather event was not predicted by meteorologists and caught the region unaware, according to Chris, leaving no time to prepare.

Though the new academic year began March 1 for private schools and March 15 for public schools, Lima’s ministry of education canceled classes for all public and private primary, secondary, and post-high school technical institutes until March 25.

“This helped reduce the number of children and people traveling from one part of the city to another and hopefully reduced the risk of exposing people to crossing the bridges in the city, which are in very bad shape,” Chris said. “The schools in Lima – including the parish school and technical institute cared for by the friars – opened again on March 25.”

Earlier this month, Peru’s transportation minister, Martin Vizcarra, indicated that the cost of fixing the country’s infrastructure is at least $1 billion and the work will take two to three years to complete. More than 227 bridges were damaged and 132 were destroyed, and more than 2,160 miles of highway were damaged and 773 miles were destroyed, according to RPP Noticias. The Pan-American Highway – the only north-south expressway route through the city of Lima – has been closed in sections due to flooding.

Chris reported that the only highway to the Andes and the jungle, where most of the country’s agriculture is located, has been closed on and off for several weeks. This has produced small, temporary shortages of vegetables, fruit and other produce, along with occasional speculation and price gouging. As the flooding has subsided, food supplies and prices have begun to stabilize.

The cost to Peru’s economy in lost productivity has been estimated at $3.1 billion, or 1.6 percent of the country’s annual output of goods and services, according to The Los Angeles Times. The Episcopal Conference of Peru organized a collection for the homeless and a national day of prayer on March 19.

Relief efforts are ongoing, with organizations including Catholic Relief Services accepting donations on behalf of Caritas Peru and the Diocese of Chulucanas (Province of Piura).

Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province.

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