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.”