Since May 2, coastal communities in El Salvador have been reeling from damage caused by severe high tide. Thankfully, our partners in the Bay of Jiquilisco experienced minimal damage from this phenomenon. Coastal communities located in “La Libertad”, or central El Salvador, however, were not so lucky. Over a hundred family businesses that rely on tourism are currently picking up the pieces, and assessing what to do when (and not if) the next major swell breaks along their coastal confines. This event highlights the urgent need for common cause along El Salvador’s coastal areas. Local communities, businesses, and municipalities must prioritize a coordinated approach to emergency response and assessment. Read the analysis from our colleagues at CostaViva and FUNRED, who are on the front lines with the impacted communities.
By Adam Keough, Graduate Student in Environmental Management at Harvard University
Last weekend the Pacific Coast of the Americas was hit with one of the biggest ocean swells in recent history. A hurricane force low pressure system forming in the South Pacific unloaded massive waves along the beaches of Chile, Peru, Central America, and Mexico. As the swell approached Central America it coincided with full moon high tides causing strong storm surges throughout the region. The size and power of the waves combined with the extreme high tides formed a devastating force that wreaked havoc on coastal infrastructure, homes, and small businesses.
According to El Salvador’s Civil Protection Department, over 1000 people were evacuated and over 300 homes were damaged due to the battering surf. Although there has not been a monetary value of the damages reported by the Salvadoran government, the destruction of 117 small businesses along the coast as well as major damages to the local artisan fishing pier will have long-term implications for many residence that rely directly on tourism and fishing as a principle source of income. In the town of Majahual, La Libertad 60 small restaurants were severely impacted. These restaurants provide jobs for hundreds of people that will now be out of work for months as they rebuild.
The response by organizations such as El Salvador’s Civil Protection Department, The Red Cross, FUNDRED, and the El Salvador Surf Federation has been paramount to ensuring that families are out of harm’s way and are provided the essentials for survival during this emergency situation. However, as communities begin to rebuild their homes and business it’s necessary that we take into consideration the persistent threats that the Salvadoran coastline faces on a yearly basis to minimize future damages.
Coastal storms are increasing both in terms of frequency and intensity worldwide due to rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change. Even as many families return to their homes, Salvadoran officials are monitoring another approaching storm of similar size and intensity. Coastal communities that rely on poor infrastructure and have little enforcement of building regulations will continue to be vulnerable in the years to come if changes are not made in the way we prepare for and respond to emergency situations.
Ocean swells can be predicted over a week in advance using buoy readings and satellite modeling. There are several local organizations that were aware of pending danger and attempts were made to advise others, but no direct communication was made between local authorities and community leaders of the severity of the threat. Even if residents are advised of an oncoming threat they are hesitant to leave behind their property for fear of theft. Having a set protocol of how and where local business can secure their belongings so they can evacuate their families to higher ground is a key element to an emergency plan in areas were property cannot be readily stored.
Even though many locals recognize the threats that the ocean presents to their homes and business, most everyone will repair and rebuild on the same strip of coast; no farther back from the high tide line than they were before. They will be built with minimal structural materials and no architectural integrity. It is the only option that locals have to seguir adelante or move forward. Locals need advising and assistance with construction designs and materials that diminish the force of ocean waves. One of the larger businesses in Majahual had constructed a gabion directly in front of the parking area that was very successful in minimizing the movement of sand onto the property, directly next door a poorly constructed eatery was completely swept out to sea.
In 2013 $904 million was spent by tourist in El Salvador, the majority of them visiting the beaches of La Libertad. The fishing sector in El Salvador makes up 13% of the national GDP and is responsible for the creation of over 36,000 jobs. The people that were affected by this storm did not only lose their homes and belongings but for many of them they lost their livelihoods for several months to come. Given the economic and social importance of the coast and the vulnerable state in which it finds itself, it’s imperative that communities work together with other local actors to reassess the overall management of the region. Being prepared for future storms and setting protocol for emergency response will help to lessen impacts during these extreme events and help to ensure that the region can continue to provide for the coastal population of El Salvador.
Photos by Andrea Castellanos, Sabrine Hernández, and Salvador Castellanos