THE MAGAZINE

After the Flood

By John Barham

The Aftermath

Although the death toll was relatively light, the economic impact of the disaster was immense, and Tabasco will probably take years to recover. The state government at the time estimated the disaster’s impact at $5 billion.

The extent of the damage became visible as the floodwaters receded. The stench of dead animals and rotting vegetation was unbearable. People piled garbage, wrecked furniture, and debris in the streets. City workers removed 10,000 tons of trash daily from Villahermosa. More than 20,000 vehicles had to be junked.

The struggle toward recovery that lies ahead can be illustrated on a personal level through one man’s eyes. Before the flood, retiree Daniel Rincón used to survive by running a tiny corner store. But the flood wrecked his store, leaving a layer of stinking sludge from floor to ceiling.

“I have lost everything I had,” he says, fighting back tears. “All my stock has gone, and it wasn’t even mine. I bought it all on credit. Who’s going to help me now?”

President Felipe Calderón said he would make sure that no resources would be spared in getting Tabasco back on its feet. He pledged $670 million in federal money to start a reconstruction fund. In addition, the government is deferring tax payments, and local businesses received financial handouts to tide them over.

Calderón realized that sound crisis management would shore up his legitimacy. He was elected by a hairsbreadth over his leftist rival.            

Planning for Disasters

Mexico first began to take crisis management seriously after an earthquake devastated Mexico City more than 20 years ago. That earthquake, which measured 8.1 in magnitude, killed between 5,000 and 10,000 people—no precise death toll could be calculated.

“The 1985 earthquake was a tragedy that we were not prepared for. I helped dig children from the debris. People were working with their bare hands,” recalls Tom Gottlieb, CPP, president of Von Gosslar Consulting, and an ASIS International regional vice president.

“We have become much less amateurish in handling disasters since 1985. The earthquake was a great wake-up call for us,” says Jorge Septien, who is the head of security for Citibank in Mexico. “It helped to make security into a serious career for professionals.”

In the wake of that disaster, the armed forces drew up detailed national disaster recovery plans to ensure that for future incidents, there would be adequate emergency relief supplies, search and rescue teams, medical centers, earthmoving equipment, and troops to maintain law and order. The government also established a national coordinating committee to bring together federal agencies, the armed forces, utilities, health services, and private-sector representatives to coordinate responses to an emergency.

The government also required that banks resume operations as quickly as possible to get cash circulating and avoid looting or violence, as had happened in previous disasters. “People don’t think to bring their ATM cards or money with them when they are trying to save their families,” says Septien. “[P]eople who are honest had to steal food and water to survive, because they had no money. We wanted to avoid this happening again in Villahermosa.”

The sooner cash began coursing through the economy, the faster the state could start recovering from the disaster. State officials say 14 of the city’s 16 supermarkets were functioning normally again three weeks after the incident.

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