THE MAGAZINE

After the Flood

By John Barham

Mexico is accustomed to devastating earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and hurricanes. But Tropical Storm Noel, which later became a hurricane, was one of the worst natural disasters the country had ever experienced. In October 2007, torrential rains fell on the low-lying, swampy Mexican state of Tabasco. The normally placid Grijalva River burst its banks, and its floodwaters inundated the state capital of Villahermosa with up to eight feet of foul, muddy water. Before long, nearly the entire state, which borders the southern Gulf of Mexico, was underwater.

A bad situation was made worse by the federal electric utility’s decision to begin releasing water from the lake behind the Peñitas hydroelectric dam. But the officials said that they had no choice: If the dam had burst, it would have devastated the entire Grijalva floodplain.

At the height of the flooding, more than four-fifths of Tabasco was submerged, and the homes of nearly a million people were damaged. Villahermosa was flooded for more than a week. Two-thirds of the largely agricultural state’s farmland was flooded, wiping out Mexico's largest banana crop and wrecking the livelihoods of thousands of local people.

Despite the devastation, just 25 people were killed during the flooding, nearly all of them in a single incident in the neighboring state of Chiapas when a landslide buried a remote village. A less intense deluge in Tabasco in 1999 killed more than 600 people.

The reduction in fatalities was no mere happenstance, as I learned in my visit there shortly after Tropical Storm Noel wreaked its devastation.  “We’ve been perfecting our plans for years,” Marco Franco, a member of the Mexican Red Cross team in Villahermosa, told me. 

The lesson they have learned from the past is this: “We live in a country that has a high risk for natural disasters, and we always have to be prepared for something like this,” he explained. “We have stocks prepositioned that are ready to go. We have vehicles. We have our teams. We use the intranet and e-mail to monitor and manage these resources for maximum efficiency.”

In this particular case, because the flooding took place over several days, government agencies had time to put their plans into action, and when the moment arose, federal and state emergency services responded quickly and efficiently.

The Mexican armed forces swiftly swung into action as the government sent 12,000 troops and federal police to the state. Navy personnel in boats fanned out across the city and the interior rescuing people and delivering supplies.

The Mexican Red Cross, as Franco noted, was also ready with teams that flew in from Mexico City; The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies sent in relief supplies that had been prepositioned in Panama.

A rapid immunization campaign carried out as part of the first response to the crisis and a well-organized emergency health program run by the local government with the armed forces warded off a feared epidemic of infectious disease. Emergency medical centers staffed by civilian and military doctors tended to the sick and injured. The most common problem: fungal infections picked up by wading in fetid water.

The private sector also responded with offers of assistance. “We wanted to contribute to the recovery and to mark our presence there,” says Eduardo Jiménez Granados, corporate security manager for northern Latin America at Procter & Gamble Mexico. Other companies, such as Coca-Cola, also took similar opportunities to help the local population.

As soon as the roads reopened, tractor-trailers loaded with food, water, and emergency supplies began pulling into Villahermosa. Air force cargo planes flew shuttle flights into the normally quiet airport, ferrying in urgently needed supplies and equipment.

To handle the donations that poured in from all over Mexico, Andrés Granier, Tabasco’s governor, turned the elegant gardens surrounding his immaculate white mansion into a makeshift logistics center. Trucks disgorged their loads onto the lawns, creating hills of food, clothes, and medicine. Volunteers sorted through the piles, which would be distributed to crowds of people lined up patiently outside. Watchful troops were on hand in case people became unruly, but the crowds were calm as they inched forward under a blazing sun.

In addition, throughout the region, mobile army kitchens handed out thousands of warm meals a day to those in need. Soldiers guarded major installations and intersections as well.

To help people locate missing family members and neighbors, the government installed electronic kiosks outside of the palace. The kiosks provided a way for people to use a touch screen to access a Web-based listing of the estimated 80,000 people in official and unofficial shelters. A state employee was there to assist anyone unfamiliar with touch screens or navigating Web pages.

At the local Red Cross headquarters, weeks after the disaster first struck, a three-man team was coordinating the organization’s relief effort. Leading the team was Isaac Oxenhaut Gruzko. He had arrived from California, where he had just been assisting in the American Red Cross relief efforts for people displaced by the wildfires then threatening southern California.

When I saw him, he was utterly exhausted, surviving on nervous energy and packs of Marlboros. Working from a bare, smoke-filled room, the men were linked to teams in the field and to the international Red Cross network by cell phone and wireless laptops connected to the organization’s intranet.

Gruzko fielded call after call from aid workers. His orders were swift and decisive. His fury when instructions were disobeyed or misunderstood was terrifying: “Who on this earth told you to deliver those things to the Palace?” he thundered over his cell phone at one helpless volunteer in language ripe with Spanish insults.

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