March 30, 1998 in Nation/World

Riding The Winds Of Apocalypse El Nino-Spawned Deluge Of Biblical Proportions Afflicts Peru’s Lifeline

David Koop Associated Press
 

The self-styled preacher storms down the aisle of the moving bus, haranguing passen gers to prepare for the fury of El Nino.

His face lined from long days in the sun, he tells dozing passengers he knows why the El Nino weather phenomenon has pounded Peru harder than any other country - the wrath of God.

“He may be right. I’m waiting for the earth to open up and swallow Peru. It’s the only thing that hasn’t happened,” says a fellow passenger, Javier Chavez, who lost most of his farm to El Nino-driven floods.

A drama of biblical dimensions is unfolding in Peru, where deadly floods and mudslides caused by El Nino deluges have killed 300 people, driven hundreds of thousands from their homes, washed away vast swaths of farmland and paralyzed the country’s highways.

Torrential rains that began in December have turned dozens of normally bone-dry river beds and ravines in Peru’s northern desert into raging rivers that have swept away villages and bridges and cut highways into ribbons.

Traveling the Pan American highway, the lifeline of Peruvian commerce running the length of its Pacific coast, has become a bruising odyssey across a ravaged landscape - requiring travel by bus, boat, donkey and foot.

The 620-mile trip from Lima to Tumbes near the Ecuadorean border, which normally is a day and a half, now takes four days. The highway has been cut by floods and landslides in more than 30 places and travelers must ford five rivers with their luggage held above their heads.

The bus passes a desolate cluster of straw shacks and box-like concrete hovels called “Ciudad de Dios” (City of God), 125 miles northwest of Lima.

Dried mud coats the streets, the remnants of a mudslide that swept over the impoverished village and left a moonscape behind.

Winds whip up thick dust storms from the dried mud, forcing residents to walk with rags held to their faces. A few barefoot children, so thin their ribs stick out, run to approaching buses to sell soda pop and candy.

Parts of the highway look as if a giant has taken bites off the sides. Drivers must swerve around car-sized holes and boulders and plow through muddy river beds.

“This is what remains of our beautiful Pan American Highway - rubble,” says the bus driver, Guillermo Rivas.

In Trujillo, Peru’s third-largest city, 300 miles northwest of Lima, El Nino did not even spare the dead.

A lagoon swollen by heavy rains burst its banks in mid-February and swept over the Mampuesto cemetery, gouging the dead from the ground.

Townspeople were confronted with the apocalyptic sight of dozens of coffins floating down the streets. After the waters subsided, several cadavers lay sprawled on muddy roads.

North of Trujillo, the highway has disappeared. Days of torrential rains caused the Chicama River to wash away a half-mile stretch of pavement.

Travelers must leave their vehicles and wade through the chocolate-brown, fastmoving waters. Shells of trucks that tried to cross the waist-deep water and failed are scattered downstream.

A lawless atmosphere rules at crossings. Swarms of men and boys offer to help travelers over the river, charging the equivalent of 50 cents to pull them across. Thieves mix among the barefoot porters.

A family carries a sobbing grandmother and a few meager possessions across the churning waters.

“The scientists told us a big El Nino was coming, but who thought it could be this bad?” says Luis Portocarrero, who carries luggage on his head across the Chicama River for 50 cents a bag.

A total of 600 trucks line up on both sides of the river as far as the eye can see, waiting for road crews to repair the highway, their cargoes of fruits and vegetables rotting.

Ricardo Ortiz has sat for five days watching his truckload of sugar wash away under torrential rains. A steady stream of sweet water - “honey” he calls it - drips under his truck.

“This is a disaster. We’re losing our cargoes and our livelihoods,” he says.

Amazingly, a nearby toll booth remains open to collect fares.

The government says 59 bridges have collapsed and 28 have been damaged across Peru. So far 530 miles of highway have been destroyed and 3,880 miles heavily damaged.

The next stop is “ground zero” for El Nino - the city of Piura, 530 miles northwest of Lima. The warmest waters of the El Nino phenomenon pool directly off this part of the Peruvian coast and torrential rains turned Piura’s streets into rivers.

On Sunday, a Peruvian air force plane evacuating people stranded by El Nino-driven floods crashed into a shantytown in Piura, killing 28 people, authorities said. There were no reports of deaths on the ground.

The plane was preparing to land when one engine broke down, authorities said.

Just a week earlier, the Piura River washed away the city’s main bridge, plunging two buses, a car and pedestrians into the swirling waters. At least 15 bodies have been recovered but the search continues.

On Friday, a packed bus with passengers crowded on the roof plunged off a cliff into a swollen river in Peru’s remote Amazon jungle, killing at least 11 people, a police spokesman said Sunday.

About 24 people were injured in the accident and 25 passengers were missing.

In contrast to the destruction in Piura, the months of El Nino-powered rains have turned the desert around the shantytown green, producing a thick carpet of lush grass over the sand and giving normally spindly, brown trees thick foliage.

So much rain has fallen that two small lagoons swelled and merged to form a 50-mile-long lake dubbed “La Nina” by local inhabitants.

On the last leg of the bus journey to Tumbes, floodwaters have slashed the highway in a a dozen spots, forcing travelers to repeatedly cross fast-moving rivers on foot. On the banks of the flooded Parinas River a row of five rough wooden crosses honor people swept away.

“I feel as if I’m in a different land - as if it is no longer Peru since El Nino came,” says Rivas, the bus driver.

The following fields overflowed: DATELINE = ON THE PAN AMERICAN HIGHWAY, PERU


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