Written at 3pm Sunday 19th March
You might’ve heard about it on the news, the death toll is now in the 60-70 region. It rained slightly the first night I arrived here and my host commented on how rare rain is in Huanchaco. Here is basically a desert, the rain is supposed to happen on the other side of the Andes; except in El Niño years. The rain that first night was gentle, “spitting” we might call it in Britain, and it’s raining in the same way now though it seems to be getting stronger.
El Niño is – if this doesn’t sound too much – a meteorological phenomenon. The water which sits off the north eastern coast of Australia just below the Philippines is the warmest in the world and it’s kept there by winds which sweep across the pacific from South America. Every four years (though somewhat unreliably) these winds die down which causes the warm water to dissipate across the Pacific to the South American coast which has two major effects. The first is that it’s a very bad time to fish, nutrients tends to inhabit cooler waters so the warm water pushes the nutrients down and out of the reach of the fishermen and their livelihood. The second is rain. The warm water evaporates into clouds which push up against the western side of the Andes and unload their cargo in areas not accustomed to such weather. Apparently the Incas used to sacrifice humans in an attempt to prevent El Niño.
Was it Wednesday or Thursday night? It rained for a few hours – what we might call “a bit of a downpour” – much more than “drizzle” but not quite “chucking it down”. Usually when it rains the host of the house we stay in cuts the electricity and begins frantically sweeping water from where it will definitely be a problem to somewhere it might be slightly less of an issue. The night started like this but escalated. I was in bed and starting to nod off, I pulled up my dangling phone charger to plug it in and found it was wet. All around my bed there was a centimeter or two of water, walking round half my room resulted in a slightly hilarious splish-splash sound. I hadn’t left anything else on the floor so there being no causalities I opened my door to see my housemates busy tooing and froing. The water seemed to be coming from behind my bed and quite a lot of it, there was some burbling somewhere which I ignored for the moment.
Downstairs two of my housemates had unplugged the WiFi router and pulled it away from the wall. There was a bucket underneath the wall fitting into which water was streaming down the cable. I revisited my room and pulled my bed away from the wall to reveal another fitting and water came out of it – I think that’s probably the most accurate description. I put a bucket underneath it which I was convinced would be full in 5-10 minutes and headed for the roof terrace. Here the problem made itself known. There was a good couple of inches of standing water up there. The houses have drains but no care has been taken to situate them at the lowest point of the roof or courtyard. I don’t know where we got all the brooms from but they materialised and we started sweeping.
A pipe which hosted the internet cable down through the house had been cut too low so once the water level on the roof was above it water flowed down the pipe and, apparently, into my room and the sitting room. The next few hours were taken up sweeping and sweeping and sweeping, eventually the rain eased and we managed to cajole most of the water into the drains and mop up inside. The street outside turned back into itself having previously served as a modest river.
The next day the schools were closed so everyone teaching English had a day off, and those of us with an office shift went to a nearby restaurant to use the WiFi since there didn’t seem to be internet in the volunteer house. The following day we had a day off entirely as the WiFi in the whole of Huanchaco had, I think, been turned off (as it has now, I’m writing this in Notepad to post when the internet returns). We were told to stock up on food and water.
When it rains too much the water flows wherever it can, rivers haven’t been formed since it doesn’t rain often enough. Roads are blocked, and streets submerged – there aren’t any drains to speak of. The trucks delivering produce weren’t able to make it to Huanchaco and a lot of the stores were out of vegetables and, worryingly, beer. Later that day, on our way to the beach to watch the sunset, we were stopped by one of the assistant managers and told “the water is coming”, and we should put on trainers and head to the volunteer house for further instructions.
“The water is coming” is a phrase that’s been uttered plenty in the last few days. It means something between a flash-flood and a mudslide is on its way down from a quarry north of the town. This then flows down a dry river built a few years ago for such an event, but we don’t yet know if it works or if it will take the volume of water. The shanty towns surrounding Huanchaco are left to fend for themselves and we thought may be swept away. Our job that evening would have been to go to the shanty towns and help families evacuate. We were told the venture was both dangerous and optional, none opted out.
In the end the water didn’t come and while some families had evacuated others were refusing. From that point, and I guess to some extent this is still true, we were on alert and were to be ready to leave for the shanty towns should the water materialise.
It has been raining not too determinedly for an hour or so now, that being said it matters not whether it rains here, rain in the mountains is both more likely and more concerning. The quarry above us is holding for the moment but if it bursts its banks will become the character of our time for a few days. Further north malaria and dengue fever have spread to coastal regions where they don’t usually belong brought their by the standing water.
Trujillo, Chanchan and the airport are all nearby and have to greater or lesser extent felt the effects of flooding. We are in a holding pattern, unable to really do much, a waiting game with only points to be lost. Perhaps tonight we will be required, perhaps another night, or not at all. It’s impossible to tell whether the worst has passed or not with rumours, personal theories and fact being presented in the same way and almost no ability to forecast.
7pm Monday 20th March
Shortly after I finished writing that last entry the rain heavied. We immediately left for the dry river to observe that the water was indeed flowing. The dry river is probably 40 meters across and we estimated the water to be about a meter deep, the flow was very fast and all manner of ex-tree roots and other heavy looking objects were being carried by its strength.
There is a muddy cliff on one side of the dry (now wet) river, above this is Las Lomas one of the shanty towns, and on the Huanchaco side there is a sizable landscaped bank. But further downstream this bank which we stood on to watch the water morphed into a lower brick wall which the river had already breached. The flow of the river was eating away at both the bank we stood on and the cliff opposite and enormous chunks of earth were being eroded. The Peruvians on either side of the river were shouting at each other to get back.
For the most part it seemed as though the dry river had done its job, if it hadn’t been there water would have come straight through Huanchaco itself causing god knows how much damage. The river had breached the wall lower down which cause some flooding near to where I live. The second issue was that the river ends at the road leading into Huanchaco which crosses it, on the other side of the road is the sea into which it must flow. The road is actually slightly sloped upwards as the river runs down which caused huge amount of water to flow down the road and flood the main coastal road through the town, together with its shops and restaurants.
We were all slightly lost, caught between marveling at the river and knowing we needed to be somewhere to organise ourselves to help. We agreed to me at the Yellow House, which is where I stay. It’s two doors down from a sushi restaurant and both are owned by the same hosts, both housing a group of volunteers. The street it’s on is only one back from the road running next to the beach and water had started gently getting higher up the street. We arrived to everyone having either grabbed a bucket to take water up to the other side of the street or a broom to sweep it away from the houses. Sandbags had been laid and we spent a while there sweeping and bailing water away from where it might do damage. The sushi place had been infiltrated but not the Yellow House.
After this was complete we went down to the front. The water had begun to subside but was still running strong, the scene as it entered the sea was indeed a sight. The water had carved the beach deep into its chosen shape and looked to have ripped parts of the pavement to one side. The main road along the beach was almost completely flooded and the parts that weren’t were caked in a thick layer of silt which formed a slippy footing. The dry river is usually a bit of a dumping ground and the river had washed miles of rubbish into the sea. The high-tide mark was now lined with branches, polystyrene, shoes, needles and all other manner of ex-belongings. The white break of the waves had turned brown closest to the river mouth.
That night those of us in houses which were more at risk of flooding were assigned other beds we could stay in should the water get worse, but it having subsided those of us in the Yellow House decided to risk it.
The next day, today, we woke up and the river had dried. We were meeting at the volunteer house early to assign groups to various ventures. The morning would be spent scouting the surrounding shanty towns and helping out where we could, then we would meet before the afternoon shift to collect reports and go to where we were most needed. Three of us were dispatched to Las Lomas to visit one of the local schools where some of the volunteers teach, ask around and generally see what we could see. The school was closed and deserted, the whole town seemed very quiet and we couldn’t see any real signs of destruction. We asked some of the locals who said the only problem was sweeping the rain, none of the flooding had come through and the only real problem today was that the buses weren’t running.
Having satisfied ourselves that we weren’t needed we headed back down to the dry river (which was actually dry again) and walked up it to the point where it carves between El Cerito (another shanty town) and Las Lomas. We walked up to find some of the others, they had located a well which needed fixing in the afternoon and were now on a general quest to see where they could help. As we walked up we saw some of the houses which had been partly collapsed, the river having cut away underneath their floors. Luckily this was only a few and the inhabitants told us they didn’t need much help, they were just finishing up.
We returned back to the beach where we knew we’d be needed in trying to make a dent in the sheer quantity of rubbish which was piled up for a good mile just in one direction. It felt pretty futile but between us and some of the locals we must’ve collected nearly 100 bin liner’s worth, not that you’d think we’d made an impact from the look of the beach. After a brief rest we returned to the beach in the afternoon, this time to help fill sandbags and build a wall with them across the road. It took us a while to cut off the road completely but eventually the little wall was built up enough to prevent the town from flooding since apparently more water was on it’s way.
The water has now come but it’s flow is reportedly much slower and it’s quantity much less than yesterday. I’m sure the piles of sandbags around the town will hold. For the moment no supplies can get through, the WiFi seems to have returned though we know not for how long, the cash machine is off or empty or both and the tap water is still turned off. The locals don’t have many resources to deal with the flooding but they are resourceful and act quickly when necessary. If no more water comes it might be a week or so before things are approaching normality. In the meantime we’ll help where we can. This is supposedly the worst for over 20 years, surely it can’t get worse?
Written by Ben Allen. Original blog on https://letterstoawhim.com/.
Otra Cosa Network are currently raising money to provide relief for the flood victims in and around Huanchaco. Please donate what you can at https://www.gofundme.com/ocn-flood-relief-for-northern-peru. All money raised will go to food, water and building materials for locals. Thank you.