El Salvador

Nine years after hurricane, life resurges in salvadoran town

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USAID-funded reconstruction provides homes, roads, water, power, schools

By David Shelby
USINFO Staff Writer

A family stands in the doorway of a new house in central El Salvador constructed with funds from USAID. USAID funded the construction of 500 new houses in central El Salvador after Hurricane Mitch hit in October 1998. The houses are designed with high-pitched roofs and large attic windows that allow residents to escape in the event of future flooding. (USAID)

A family stands in the doorway of a new house in central El Salvador constructed with funds from USAID. (USAID)Puerto Parada, El Salvador - When the skies opened in late October 1998, dumping torrential rains across El Salvador, Corina gathered her two young sons and abandoned her makeshift shanty to seek refuge at her mother's house near the coastal town of Puerto Parada. But her mother's house was not on ground high enough to escape the flood waters from Hurricane Mitch.

Mitch killed more than 10,000 people in Central America when it slammed ashore in Honduras, making it the second deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record. It left a path of devastation from Nicaragua to Guatemala. The storm left homeless hundreds of thousands of people, Corina's family among them.

Corina recounted to USINFO on June 29 how the water began to rise around Corina's mother's house as the Rio Grande de San Miguel overflowed its banks. Two men stopped by the house to tell Corina that the water was already waist-deep in low-lying areas. They urged her to evacuate. Within minutes, they returned and reported that the water was now chest-deep and rising.

At this point, there was no way in which Corina could evacuate through the flood waters with her two young children. The men spotted a police boat and hailed it to rescue the family. The seats in the boat were reserved for children and pregnant women, so Corina loaded her sons on board and held onto the side.

Corina's feet could not touch bottom as the boat motored over the streets she had walked just days before. The police delivered the family to a shelter where neighbors provided Corina and her children with dry clothes. When the river crested two meters above flood stage that day, Corina lost everything but her family.

The storm washed out roads, destroyed schools, took down power grids, flooded latrines and contaminated water wells throughout the river valley.

USAID workers install a new deep-well water system in Puerto Parada, El Salvador, following Hurricane Mitch. The new system replaces the superficial wells that were contaminated when the Rio Grande de San Miguel overflowed its banks and flooded the town. (USAID)

USAID workers install a new deep-well water system in Puerto Parada, El Salvador, following Hurricane Mitch. (USAID)But, nine years after the devastating flood, Puerto Parada is once again a thriving community.

Following the storm, the Salvadoran government divided the disaster area into reconstruction zones and assigned each zone to an aid agency. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) took responsibility for the central zone, which included Puerto Parada.

Corina's family was one of 500 in the central reconstruction zone that received new homes in the wake of Mitch. The houses, built of solid cinderblock, feature high-pitched roofs with attic lofts and upper-level escape doors where the residents can seek refuge and escape in the event of future flooding.

USAID funded the construction of a new access road from the coastal highway into Puerto Parada to replace the dirt road that was washed out by the storm and installed new electricity and water systems. The water system serves more than 500 families in the town, and Corina commented that the deep-well water is far superior to the salty water she received from the shallow coastal wells.

USAID also replaced the town's latrines with facilities designed to prevent waste material from washing into Jiquilisco Bay and creating black tides, a common problem before the storm. Finally, USAID helped rebuild the community's school, giving Corina's children a place to study.

All of this reconstruction could be pointless unless thought was given to planning for future storms. This is where El Salvador's National Service for Territorial Studies partnered with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to devise a watershed management system along El Salvador's major rivers.

NOAA installed a water-level observation network throughout the region and trained local technicians to monitor river levels, manage dam discharges and notify emergency committees in communities downstream when the rivers approach flood stage. The system received its first major test in October 2005 when Hurricane Stan dumped heavy rains across the region. Technicians managed the water flow through dam discharges, and Puerto Parada was spared another flood.

Corina thanks God and those individuals who helped rebuild Puerto Parada that her community is a much better place to live now than it was nine years ago.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)