Flooding is nothing new in the Lower Lempa. In fact, you could say that it brings out the best in people.
Even before the low pressure system developed into Tropical Storm Agatha last Friday and Saturday, local leadership at La Coordinadora were working closely with municipal emergency committees throughout the Usulután region. Preparing for the worst in the face of a foreboding national weather forecast, the community network of information and response hummed to life. Volunteers stayed close to two-way radios and passed information along to organizers, who in turn spread the word to individual households: “Get ready to move, get your animals to high ground, and prepare your belongings and homes. A flood is coming.” Much like the phone tree concept we use for the local neighborhood watch or to keep us informed during a son or daughter’s field trip, emergency response in the Lower Lempa relies on a pre-planned, coordinated structure to act at a moment’s notice to spread information across dozens of communities. Where TV is a luxury and newspapers are non-existent, families rely on their neighbors and friends to stay informed.
With rains beginning to fall, local emergency responders mobilized around the most at-risk communities, which have historically been the first affected by rising water. As rains turned to torrents, local leadership correlated flood maps to incoming information on rising water levels as reported from various community radios, and prioritized response accordingly. Shelters built 6-8 feet off the ground were opened and staffed, while others worked with municipal governments to channel the appropriate amount of finite food and supplies to those in need. Meanwhile, emergency responders continued to monitor key drainages and reinforced embankments along a raging Lempa River, engorged by water let loose to relieve upstream reservoirs, and passed along information accordingly.
When the sun finally appeared again Tuesday morning, over 250 people were watching waters recede from three local shelters, providing a dry space for the most vulnerable community members from 24 villages still under some three feet of water. Many more were camping out on higher ground along roadways, protected by deep-cut channels along their sides to collect and channel flood waters flowing through the landscape. Those communities unfortunate enough to be closest to the banks of the Lempa River were witness to nearly 6,000 cubic meters of water per second flowing past their homes. Such a high volume of water easily overcame reinforced embankments along the river, designed to only withstand flows between 1400-1600 cubic meters per second.
In the span of 24 hours, sometime between Saturday morning and Memorial Day afternoon, over 19 inches of water was unleashed upon El Salvador and the Lower Lempa, making Agatha even more intense than the nightmare scenario of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Thankfully for everyone, Agatha was short-lived.
Though it may be hard to comprehend, events like Tropical Storm Agatha are just one more part of a rural routine in the Lower Lempa. In fact, a similar deluge so many years ago served as an important catalyst in bringing former enemies together amidst the divisive, post-conflict landscape in El Salvador. You could say that floods are the reason why La Coordinadora is such an effective community organization. They are most certainly a big part of the social movement’s identity, serving as the underlying issue for which people become involved and local leadership is born. Floods and natural disasters are first and foremost a tremendous hardship, especially for the poorest people who are least able to cope. But they can also be an opportunity, a means toward community development and empowerment as people work together to weather the storm, and in the aftermath. For Agatha will not be the last disaster to hit the Lower Lempa, and there is much work to be done.