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Volume 16, Number 12
December 10, 2010

news special

Also in this section:
Colombian spymaster gets asylum here
Rector Magnifico's candidate finishes third in race for dean
Martinelli continues his attacks on the press
Delayed poll results emphasize Ngabe-Bugle Comarca's rejection of Martinelli
San Miguelito mayor switches parties, ends some problems and gains new ones
Polls show Martinelli personally popular, people skeptical about his alliance
Poll suggests Panamanians might accept a coup d'etat
Corregidor replaced over Zombie Walk
Police state show over the holidays
Casco Viejo land grabs

Many things that used to be in a Panama News Briefs feature of the website have now migrated to our constantly updated Facebook page

The torrents coming down the Chagres River --- and creating landslide risks along Culebra Cut --- led the Panama Canal to interrupt traffic for part of a day on December 8, the first shutdown in operations in decades.

State of emergency declared, at least 10 dead, at least 4,700 driven from their homes, major roads affected
Unusually heavy rain
disrupts many lives
by Eric Jackson

The First Lady's Office and the National Civil Protection System (SINAPROC) announce the opening of the collection center in the Parque Omar Clubhouse, located in the [Panama City] corregimiento of San Francisco....
Easy-to-open canned food (spam, sausages, tuna), disposable diapers, sanitary napkins, cleaning supplies, milk and juice in shelf life boxes and water are the principal supplies that are needed.
The donations will be received in the Clubhouse at Parque Omar from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Announcement on the First Lady's website

Constant heavy rains are caused by climate change. We know that we are still in the rainy season but the intensity of the rains is the result of climate change. To this end we are all victims, but we can be aware of the damage caused to the planet and make common cause to create awareness of the URGENCY of addressing these issues and their consequences....

On this occasion, we make an appeal that the offerings on Sunday December 12, 2010, and offerings received in the offices during the week, before our brothers who are victims in Panama. We also call for donations of bottled water, dry and/or canned food. All funds and donations received in the Diocesan Office will be channeled through PROMESA, the Office for Promotion of Social Ministry and Education.
The Rt. Rev. Julio E. Murray
Anglican Bishop of Panama

The economic losses have barely begun to be calculated. Just the extra fuel burned in the traffic jams caused by simultaneously damaged approaches to both the Bridge of the Americas and the Centennial Bridge would add up to a considerable if not easily quantifiable sum.

However, some things are easy to know. We do know that one industrial chicken farm in Chepo district was totally destroyed and that hundreds of hectares of various crops have been lost. Add to that the losses caused by shipping delays when traffic in the Panama Canal was halted for 17 hours. Add to that the merchandise that was damaged or ruined when much of the City of Colon and the Colon Free Zone were inundated. The cost of the down time for businesses that were flooded will be harder to calculate. When the waters recede and the ground dries enough for ranchers to go out looking for stranded cattle, we will begin to know how many animals were lost --- but we already know that some dairy farmers were unable to get their milk to market due to impassable roads. In places where landslides carried away or undermined the roads, it will be relatively easy to put a price on the repairs. The cost of fixing the Tocumen Airport runway that buckled under flooding will also be easily determined, especially because its temporary loss did not greatly disrupt air traffic. Although business groups try to do it every time that the campus radicals or labor unions act up, the economic losses from jammed or slowed traffic are much harder to figure. Then we must consider that we don't know when the rains will come again, and thus how soggy the ground may be when they do.

Maybe the most important unknown is the condition of the Bayano Dam, one of the main sources of electricity for the country. There have been published photos of damage to the lower part of its spillway, but much worse are the rumors that the dam itself may be weakened and giving way. During the emergency the power generators at the dam were turned off and that --- plus another major hydroelectric generator, the Esti Dam, being offline for repairs --- resulted in power outages across much of the country, which then caused interruptions or slowdowns at some of the water treatment plants. We will have to wait and see what inspectors say about the condition of the Bayano Dam. If it needs replacement or major structural repairs, its generators would be out of service for a year or two and higher electric bills would be only one of the annoying consequences.

Total loss chicken farm in Chepo. Photo by the Presidencia

Were things economic routinely reported in their human dimensions, the political and economic systems in Panama and many other places would probably not be able to withstand the public reaction. Moreover, much of the press corps that has grown accustomed to the simplistic explanation and the cheap emotional appeal wouldn't be able to explain such matters to people who come out of an educational system that turns out many a graduate unable to make change for a simple purchase without the aid of a cash register. So the poignant scenes of weeping survivors and the dazed homeless predominate, and fortunately for the corporate mainstream media, this bad weather has provided many of those.

However, because some of the areas are remote and blessed (or cursed) with little government presence in good times, because some of the people who live in the poorest affected areas migrate to pick crops of coffee or melons or whatever else is ready to be harvested, and because some of the people who are affected are not on any government list and don't care to be, the direct human toll is also imprecise.

Take the December 7 and 10 landslides in the Portobelo area, for example. In the Panamanian media, we hear of several houses buried and of five members of the Zapata family dead, and three members of the Muñoz family known to have died (with several others of that family missing) in the disaster. But in the Colombian media there is a report that four members of the Saavedraa and Aguilar family, who lived from an informal recycling business and were natives of Santa Marta, Colombia, had also perished in the landslides. (Their relatives are working through the Colombian embassy here to have the bodies repatriated.)

There are also people who are missing from the flooded areas of Chepo, who may have just fled safely to places where they were not counted, or who may have been swept away by the floods and drowned. When this story was written the official death toll was 10, but it's probably higher.

Colombian immigrants Ana Lucía Aguilar, Pablo Saavedra and their daughter Nicole, all reported killed in a Portobelo landslide, along with Saavedra's mother. Their families back in Colombia want the bodies repatriated.

As of the morning of December 10, SINAPROC reported that 4,771 people had been driven from their homes by the rain. The worst of it was reported around the Bayano River and Lake Bayano in eastern Panama province, but in the flooding from four days of steady rains in most of the country as a cold front passed from December 4 through 8, rivers overflowed in Bocas del Toro, Chiriqui, Veraguas, Los Santos, Cocle, Panama, Colon and Darien provinces. Poor squatters who illegally build their shacks in flood plains were as usual among the first affected, but these flood waters rose more quickly than people thought likely, and covered areas above those designated on the official maps as flood-prone zones. Many farmers who live on higher ground but grow things on the fertile flood plains were taken by surprise.

Flooding in Chepo district. Photo by the Presidencia

The affected communities have by and large pulled together in the crisis. In one part of Chepo district beyond the Bayano Bridge, a long stretch of the Pan-American Highway was flooded and the area could only be reached by helicopter. President Martinelli, SINAPROC and the National Police did arrive by air to review the situation and bring in supplies, and they found people in grim situations but working together to help themselves. In a December 9 email by Catholic parish priest Father Walter Kasuboski (which was forwarded to The Panama News), we learned of some of the practical challenges:

The last couple of days have been very hectic here is Wacuco. Yesterday we were called to send the school bus to the Bayano Bridge community of Cañitas because of very heavy rains throughout the area. The water levels of the Bayano dam were so high that the operators opened the flood gates a day earlier which caused water levels to rise and flood many surrounding communities. There was also a slight chance that the dam would burst killing many thousands of people in the area.

So we sent the bus and found many desperate people whose homes had been completely flooded under water. We loaded the bus with 83 people and brought them to the high school in Torti. A bit later 5 more buses arrived. There are a total of 285 people --- men, women and children presently housed at the high school. The local politicians and especially the local people have been very generous in seeing that they are fed and cared for. Lots of good will.

This morning we took our tanker truck to the school with 8,000 gallons of water from our water system here in Wacuco, because the Torti water system is not adequate for such a big influx of people. Since Wednesday morning we have become totally isolated from the outside world --- except by helicopter. Three miles of the Panamerican Highway are under 5 to 8 feet of water between Cañitas and Chepo. It is possible that some of the bridges have been washed away or severely damaged. We will not know the answer until the flood waters go down for inspection.

Flood victims take refuge in a public school. Photo by the Presidencia

The rains stopped in most of the country on December 9, but flood waters kept rising in some areas as rain that fell in the mountains made its way down to the coasts. Moreover, even though the cold front shown on NASA's infrared satellite photo below has mostly moved away from directly above Panama, it still remained in the region and in position to bring more heavy rain to the eastern end of the country. Some meteorologists are also warning that between now and March --- generally rain-free in most of Panama in most years --- we should expect four more such fronts, the products of the La Niña effect wherein the surface waters of the Central Pacific Ocean get unusually cold and affect weather worldwide.

Also in this section:
Colombian spymaster gets asylum here
Rector Magnifico's candidate finishes third in race for dean
Martinelli continues his attacks on the press
Delayed poll results emphasize Ngabe-Bugle Comarca's rejection of Martinelli
San Miguelito mayor switches parties, ends some problems and gains new ones
Polls show Martinelli personally popular, people skeptical about his alliance
Poll suggests Panamanians might accept a coup d'etat
Corregidor replaced over Zombie Walk
Police state show over the holidays
Casco Viejo land grabs

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© 2010 by Eric Jackson
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