Twenty minutes. That’s how long it took the water to rise almost five feet in Las Lagunas, a small town in the south of Mexico’s Tabasco state where Lucio Ramirez works as a first-grade teacher. Ramirez was sitting in his living room when a friend arrived with his entire family, seeking refuge. Their house had already been flooded, and they had nowhere else to go.
“I thought we would be safe at my place, the water wasn’t supposed to reach that area,” Ramirez said. “The government hadn’t ordered us to evacuate, but that night I heard people screaming and running outside and I saw the water had started rising. In a few moments it was up to my waist. We had to leave quickly.”
Ramirez and his family left the house that night. He barely had time to grab some clothes and important documents. They went to his mother’s house, which had become a makeshift shelter, housing friends and relatives. “Every house in Tabasco that isn’t flooded has turned into a shelter,” said Tabasco’s governor, Andres Granier, in a speech describing the disaster.
Lucio Ramirez is one of nearly one million people displaced by the Tabasco floods, one of the worst natural disasters in Mexico’s history. Just a few days after Ramirez left his house, Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón declared a state of emergency and sent hundreds of troops to evacuate half of the state, which is roughly the size of Belgium.
The floods started on October 28, and 70 percent of the state is still under water. Images of people living on their rooftops and hanging from lampposts have shaken the nation. To date, 20,000 people are stranded and as many as ten have died. These numbers are expected to increase once the waters recede. Tabasco has effectively turned into a “water-state,” where many areas are only accessible by helicopter or boat.
Tabasqueños are used to floods. The seven rivers crossing the state overflow once or twice a year, and residents know how to deal with the excess of water. Many people automatically started moving their furniture to their rooftops, but refused to leave their houses, thinking the water level would soon subside.
“We know how to live with the water, we’ve had floods before, but this was completely unexpected,” said Jenny Garcia, who left her home as soon as her town was ordered to be evacuated. She has not been able to return, and authorities have said that it might be at least a month before she can go back. “Of course I am worried about my house and the things I left, but overall, I’ve been lucky,” she said. “[As a nurse] I can still work; some people–farmers, fishermen–they lost everything.”
Farmers are undoubtedly the big losers from the floods. Rafael Tosca, deputy director for the trade department of the Tabasco Economy Ministry, announced that 100 percent of the state’s crops and agricultural fields were lost. There are not precise numbers for lost livestock, but he said that “thousands of heads of cattle” had drowned. This is a catastrophe for a state whose economy largely depends on agriculture. About 30 percent of the state’s population depends on agricultural jobs or subsistence farming for their survival (Tabasco is a major exporter of bananas, cocoa, beef and the famous Tabasco pepper).
“While the government is worried about cleaning up the capital and its surrounding areas, there are still people who haven’t gotten any aid,” said Chris Bessenecker, an international public health and development specialist who works as a consultant for Project Concern International, a non-governmental organization specializing in disaster aid relief. “Rural areas are hard to access, so assistance is just not getting there.”
Mexicans have responded vigorously to the needs of their fellow citizens. More than 2,000 tons of goods have been shipped to Tabasco in the past two weeks. Schools, supermarkets and even coffee shops have turned into collection centers, where people donate basic supplies like bottled water, food and blankets. Concerts and movie theaters have donated their ticket sales to the cause.
Mexico has also received help from the international community. Ireland gave about 1 million euros just three days after the president declared a state of emergency. Cuba sent fifty doctors to treat Tabasco residents, the UK provided boats and France sent 20,000 water purification tablets. In total, the European Union donated 3 million euros, an astounding sum compared to the $300,000 that the US government has given thus far.
For a disaster of this magnitude, the floods have received very little attention from the US media. While the BBC and The Guardian websites headlined Tabasco just twenty-four hours after the floods broke out, encouraging readers to share pictures and stories, it took two more days before the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times picked up the story, which never made it to their front pages. Major broadcasters like CNN and Fox News are no longer covering the aftermath of the floods, and donations to the cause were scarcely publicized. Mexico is experiencing its own Hurricane Katrina, and its closest neighbor has hardly heard about it.
The Mexican government estimates the economic losses to be nearly $5 billion–and costs will rise, as Tabasco now faces new challenges. The Ministry of Health announced that there is a high risk of dengue and cholera epidemics because of water pollution. An epidemic would easily spread, since medical facilities are scarce with more than 100 of the region’s health centers still under water.
People in rural areas waiting to be evacuated might still get some help before it is too late from the few organizations that are trying help Tabasco’s most isolated areas. Project Concern International Mexico plans to donate seeds and livestock to farmers so they can recover quickly. “Getting these people seeds to replant so that in a month they can have food they can eat and sell is important,” said Bessenecker. “It’s not only about giving goods but about being able to give people the necessary tools so that they can reactivate Tabasco’s economy.”
It will take months before Tabasco recovers completely. In 1999, floods of a lesser magnitude damaged the state’s infrastructure and set back its economic growth for about a year. Although the government pledged millions of dollars to strengthen the state’s dam and pump system, the project was not completed and not all of the money has been accounted for, raising the question of whether this disaster–like Hurricane Katrina–could have been prevented. President Calderón has pledged to oversee the reconstruction of Tabasco until the very end, “regardless of the cost.”
Lucio Ramirez has now returned to his house and is trying to clean up and save what the water didn’t wash away. “It’s sad to see how you can lose so much in so little time, but we’re all still optimistic, we’re all helping each other.”