Monday, March 31, 2014

Twenty First Anniversary of the Josefina landslide near Cuenca Ecuador

It is hard to believe that 21 years have passed.  I remember it well as I was living just off the Pan American Highway on the road to the village of  Llacao, a few minutes drive from the affected area. We were fortunate but many of the people I knew were not so lucky.

When I came home a few years later  I wrote this piece entitled Los Damnificados...The Cursed Ones..which is what victims of the ensuing flood called themselves in those days.

I apologize in advance for any errors you may find in this post.


Los Damnificados

“If something isn’t done it could reach Cuenca,” said Ashiko.
Ashiko was our hired man and he was speaking about the inundacion or flood that was creeping backwards inch by watery inch from the junction where the Hadan and Cuenca rivers poured into the River Paute.

We had a property just past the bridge at El Descanso de Sucre in the tiny settlement called La Victoria del Portete.

We went to take a look, along with hundreds of other cars on a Sunday outing, to see the latest disaster to befall Ecuador

Although the Cuenca-Canar section of the Pan Americano was impassable on the first Sunday we could reach our property by going the long way around through some pretty country towns.

Upon arrival we harvested our first planting of hominy corn and retrieved some items from the property.  The two houses, made of concrete block, were still dry and one was higher up the slope so might be safe.  It could never cover our houses like it had some of the ones located on the banks, could it?

On Tuesday we tried to return but this time there was no pass.  The swollen brown river licked the belly of the old stone and cement bridge where the road forked off to Gualaceo at El Descanso. There was fear that the river would take the bridge as well.

Telephone poles near the river bank came up, gasped and sank beneath the waves. The beautiful hacienda right on the riverbank that I had so admired, was entirely submerged and lost from view. Bloated corpses of sheep, goats, cows, dogs, cats and, yes, humans bobbed on the gently rippled surface.

Thievery was rife. The intrepid held their breath and dove down to pull out soaked treasures. Some limited themselves to stealing clay tiles from a few still exposed roofs. Mud huts dissolved slowly back to their original form.

Our neighbour, a lawyer from Cuenca who had an extensive flower export business lost most of his crops and buildings.

As the government dickered and scratched its head the water moved inexorably on.  “Why don’t they just dynamite it?” said my practical, action-oriented husband Julio.

Ever erring on the side of caution, I was horrified. “But that could cause more of the mountain to cave in couldn’t it?” 

We should wait to see what the experts , called over from Switzerland, say, I thought. Julio, never impressed by experts insisted he was right. 
Over eons the Rio Paute had carved a deep canyon through the mountain as it made its way to the Amazon Basin. The road through the canyon passed by Gualaceo and Paute and other small settlements.  These faced an uncertain future should the now dammed up water release too suddenly from the algae covered lake they had formed.

Gualaceo was proud of being “La Puerta del Oriente” literally  the door to the east but in Ecuador the Oriente signified deep Amazonian jungle.  The local landmark...the golden chicken (an image that appeared on the canyon wall) would be drowned and gone forever now.

Years of poor mining practices, allowed to continue by the fat graft paid to government officials, had finally weakened the mountains resolve to stand tall.  

One fateful morning it just gave up. It slumped its mighty shoulders all the way down to the river, covering huts perched on its side, animals, businesses, bromeliads and humans before it reached the road and a large section of river Paute.  The rivers that poured into the Paute had nowhere to go after they formed the large lake,  but backwards and upwards.  And up they ran, over houses and fields.

One victim, who took refuge with us, told us his family was sleeping when they heard a tremendous rushing sound.  They looked outside to see an ocean of mud, rocks and water licking the bottom floor of their house.  

There was a tree outside the window. Thinking quickly he helped his wife out and handed the three children out to her. Before he could reach the tree his wife and young son were swept away.  He spent a horrifying night clinging to his other two children in the crotch of the tree before being rescued.  Homeless and heartsick he was a haunted man, wandering with blank eyes seeking shelter from one relative and another but finding no solace anywhere.

The damnificados , victims of the flood, were housed along with their heavy burden of anguish first in tent cities and later in convents and schools. 

Collections were taken from the already impoverished to cover their food and for a rebuilding fund. Sickeningly there was much scandal surrounding what happened to a large part of these collected funds and several esteemed members of the Catholic Church were rumored to be involved. Tongues were clucked, shoulders were shrugged but no one was taken to account as far as I know.

And the river rose. And rose.  Thirty three long days went by as the army chipped away at the lip of the earth with shovels. Their plan was to make a small breach through which the river would slowly trickle downward to Gualaceo and Paute.  The residents of these towns had been evacuated and lived in a tent city for a time.  

And it turned out I had been wrong about the property in La Victoria. Some said the water had risen to a depth of 75 feet. The lower two story house was completely submerged while the upper house had water up to the window sills...approximately 3 feet off the ground.

Meanwhile the creek behind our house near Llacao became a stream and then a river, makeshift bridges were swept away.  

We were thankful that we had built on the second level of our new property.  It sloped steeply in three tables from the gravel road winding between the Pan Americano and the mountain village of Llacao.    

But some of the damnificados came out ahead of the game. Our housekeeper, her husband and four small children had lived in a house under construction as "guardians". 

The life of a guardian is a nomadic one.  Moving from unfinished home to unfinished home, guarding piles of materials from thieves.  It is a hard one with no running water or toilet facilities, no heat ...cold winds rushed through the incomplete walls and rain poured in unfinished rooftops. Andean nights can get as cold as the high 40s or low 50s.

When the house they were guarding was washed away my housekeeper and her family lived for a time at one of the tent cities and then were moved to a convent in Cuenca.  

Eventually they came to live on our property in a snug and charming old adobe house with patio, and outdoor plumbing. In exchange for the house the wife, M, tended the animals, a few cows, goats, sheep, pigs, chickens and cuyes (or guinea pigs which are a sought after delicacy in Cuenca). Her husband worked in construction. 

Eventually they were given their own cement block home in El Cisnea small settlement built for the Damnificados. 

Like its namesake the swan, it floated safely, not on water but in the beautiful eucalyptus dotted hills high above the disaster zone. It is highly likely that they never would have been able to afford a home like this in their lifetimes.

After they moved M continued to work for us for a weekly salary. She developed strong muscular legs from climbing to her own house and plunging rapidly downwards to ours every day.

Melida and I developed a friendship over the years and she kept in touch with me after I left Ecuador.

 When the water was eventually released and things started to dry out we went to see our properties.  The straw roofed adobe homes of our former neighbours had returned to the earth.  Our houses, built from cinder block had survived, muddy but intact.  This was thanks in no small part to my husband's tendency to overbuild! He had recently reinforced the corners of the lower house so that he could build a parking area over the roof!

I remarked to him at the time, "You know this could be a good selling feature in the future." 

And sure enough one day a gentleman approached us wanting to buy the property. He had noticed that it was among the very few that had buildings still standing and solid after the flood. We were all happy about our transaction. 

 In 2003 I stumbled upon this write up on line

Ten years ago a landslide in the mountains of Ecuador killed over 100 people. It also blocked a mountain river, creating a temporary flood reservoir that, a month later, burst through the debris and caused extensive flood damage downstream. The geomorphology of the whole valley was substantially altered and it become unstable, not helped by continued local aggregate mining. This paper reports on the delicate, long-term operation to monitor and stabilise the Paute river valley, including shaving two million m3 off a mountain and installing a novel system of drop structures on the river bed.
Author(s): B. Abril1 | D. Knight2
1993     Mar. 29 - "La Josefina" Disaster: Over 30 million cubic meters of the hill Tamuga slide and block the flow of the Cuenca and Jadán rivers (at the border of Cañar and Azuay); the largest producer of electricity, the Paute hydroelectric plant, and surrounding towns are at imminent risk of destruction. Apr. 30 - Soldiers breach the obstruction at "La Josefina" with anti-tank rockets; the rushing waters partially destroy the towns of Paute, Méndez, and other small towns.

 Confirmed "instability" in La Josefina, Zone 1
May 15, 2011Environment Minister, Marcela Aguiñaga, yesterday toured the La Josefina, located approximately 15 kilometers from Cuenca beside the road El Descanso-Paute, in this place was the Tamuga hill slippage in March 1993.Alexandra Quinn, an official of the Ministry of Environment in Cuenca, recalled that the disaster of La Josefina flooded large areas, crops, roads and more, plus the lives that were lost.The holder of this ministry in Cuenca, Gustavo Morejon, following the route taken with the technicians, said "the geological situation of the area is quite unstable, it is clear that there are areas that are slowly sliding running and causing increasing vulnerability in the area, this has led to the Declaration of State of Emergency ... the state of vulnerability of populations upstream and downstream is high. "In Zone 1, the Minister Aguiñaga after the walk together with technicians, said that currently there is no aggregate mining, recalled that the decree is in force, warning that this area is free of any quarrying stone material. The restriction is for security reasons.He also explained about the process, which already started, the expropriation of land under the Public Utility declaration with respect to Zone 1. There are approximately 3,000 hectares of which 500 will be affected.Families will have to leave their properties.This process is leading the ministry is quite complicated because expropriation in an area where they have lost the property lines, as happened in 1993, which makes everything more complex, he said.He stressed that it is not that families accept or not the amount the government will give for their land "is a condemnation proceeding, not a negotiation mechanism." (ACR)$ 300 000Secretary of State declared that the expropriation process will take a long time, but that families "are assured that the ministry will pay the fair market value for land that is determined by valuations and land registers."Are allocated more than $ 300 000 in court for those people who have been notified come to accept the legal process and that they charge their values.Not yet started the expropriation of any land, Aguiñaga said, because they do not match the cadastre or the boundaries that existed at the time that people took to the real situation. Therefore, they are required first to perform planimetric survey studies and other processes.To date 275 have cadastral parcels.“inestabilidad”-en-la-josefina-zona-1.html

Area Tamuga and Zhizhi permanence is not recorded daily of inhabitants. The landowners live outside the townJosefina grounds of the delay compensation without registrationMay 13, 2011An area of ​​Josephine in surveillance, but the progress of stabilization depends on the compensation of the properties.The stage of expropriation and compensation for the land surrounding hills Tamuga and Zhizhi has remained static since most land ownership has not been legalized.According to Gustavo Morejon, regional director of the Ministry of Environment. The grounds are an inheritance from grandparents and parents who have never been legally registered. Besides this drawback, coupled with the absence of boundaries that makes the calculation of compensation for the fair value of each item.To do this, carry out cadastral surveys to define the area of ​​land and property owners in the area there. The purpose of this is to cancel Prosesa real prices and keep families feel cheated by selling their properties. Morejon said they will open a technical office in the canton Paute to have greater accessibility to the site and expedite the process.Stabilization PlanCarlos Fernandez de Cordova, manager of the Management Board of Water Basin Paute CGPaute said that to start the Master Plan Stabilization of Tamuga hill, need authorization  authorities intervened to protect the area one of the Josefina.Such authorization must wait until the Regional Directorate of the Ministry of Environment completed the expropriation and compensation of land, said Cordova.The stabilization work is due to the continuing risk of another landslide in the area, especially if it allows the exploitation of mines still in place. In recent years, investment was more than four million dollars, he said CGPaute manager.María Dolores, a former resident of Hacienda Tomebamba sector, said that in the disaster and lost her husband sold their land, so far from where he now lives, but has relatives in remote areas of the hills. However, requests that if they were to expropriate the property of the few people who live within the risk area, they cancel the corresponding value for them to move to another space. (OEM)

Now it is 2014, Twenty one years later and I am reading all about it again in Gringo Tree a publication written for and by Gringos - expats who now live in Cuenca Ecuador.

Here is a clickable link to that article
Twenty-first Anniversary of the Josefina disaster

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