After the Flood

By John Barham

A final recommendation was that the bank should strengthen relations with local and federal government emergency agencies, such as civil defense and the armed forces, to reduce response times in a crisis.

Many issues require government action. The Grijalva is one of Mexico’s most important rivers. Its hydroelectric dams generate about one quarter of the country’s electricity. Yet federal and state governments have invested little to protect residents from flooding or to enforce zoning regulations to prevent people from building in areas prone to flooding. Indeed, money earmarked after the 1999 floods to pay for flood protection programs either went missing or was misspent.

Raúl Fraga, who heads investigative reporting at Mexican business daily El Financiero, said, “Tabasco had a corrupt political system, although Granier is somewhat different from the others, and he was governor for barely a year when the flooding began. It’s very obvious that money from the federal government to prevent the effects of the flooding on the population has not been spent according to plan.”

Local environmentalists charge that the federal government did not fully implement a flood control plan that had been announced with great fanfare in 2000.

Elías Sánchez, a member of Asociación Ecológica Santo Tomás, says, “There were a series of meetings in which it was agreed to improve the security of the people. In 2003, a flood control plan was announced which would be implemented through 2007 with money from the federal government. But the money did not arrive in time, and the program was extended to 2008. The implementation of some projects was done badly, a few were done well, and others were not done at all.”

Many people are dreading what will happen as the handouts, goodwill, and tax breaks come to an end. “Mexicans are very emotional and respond generously in an emergency,” says Salvador Alcantara, CPP, a consultant based in Villahermosa.

But dealing with long-term recovery issues and preventing future disasters is another thing. “For instance, we need to have a policy that discourages people from building in high-risk areas, which does not really exist at the moment,” says Alcantara.

One resident who did not want to give his name said, “The problem is what comes after everyone has forgotten about Tabasco and all the things that happened to the people of Villahermosa. What will happen to us when the help ends? People are spending this money on surviving, and they cannot prepare for the time when there will be no more help. The owners of businesses will not be able to keep employees if no one is buying their products. And don’t forget that Tabasco is a poor state. We were poor before, and now we have become even poorer.”

The state government so far has indicated that it will stay the course, providing assistance until the area is back on its feet. Almost 22,000 small firms registered with the state for financial support, and officials have promised $430 million in soft loans to companies that qualify for aid. It has also promised $8 million in financial assistance for 10,000 local companies. Federal officials say they will invest in tourist promotion and to rebuild the state’s hotel and transportation infrastructure to kickstart the state economy. 

Ariel Cetina Bertruy, head of Invitab, the state government’s housing agency, told a Tabasco newspaper that he would rebuild 300,000 homes affected by floods at a cost of about $600 million.

The state government  conducted a census in December to identify those most at risk, and it has started to relocate about 40,000 families away from areas most exposed to flooding. It also plans to purchase 600 hectares of private land in a safer area where homes can then be built to house the people being relocated. The first homes were meant to be ready in March 2008, but Alcantara says that by August work had not begun.

About 1,000 people were still living in shelters while others had built makeshift homes on the floodplains, areas at risk of further floods in the future.

Alcantara says private companies and the public sector must take crisis planning more seriously. For example, government agencies should improve early warning and communications capabilities. In addition, power and telecommunications providers need to improve the resilience of essential systems, and companies need to consider how vulnerable their supply chains and basic services are in an emergency.

John Barham is a senior editor at Security Management.




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