El Salvador

Salvadoran floods test resilience of families and effectiveness of humanitarian aid

News and Press Release
Originally published
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By Tim Ledwith

LA LIBERTAD, El Salvador, 11 December 2009 - Ismael Linares, 13, put a brave face on the story of how his family fled for their lives in the floods that struck El Salvador in early November. In the tiny hamlet of Melara, he pointed to a stretch of rocks and barren ground - all that remained of the houses where he and his relatives used to live.

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On 7 and 8 November, heavy rains from Hurricane Ida, combined with another storm system in the Pacific, battered the Salvadoran departments of Cuscatlán, La Libertad (where Melara is located), La Paz, San Martin, San Salvador and Verapaz.

Some 75,000 Salvadorans were displaced from their homes. About 15,000 of them took refuge in shelters that were quickly set up, mostly in local school buildings.

A month later, nearly 6,000 are still living in converted classrooms. More than 25 families from Melara, for example, remain at the Eduardo Guirola School, which Ismael normally attends. Their prospects for permanent housing are still uncertain.

"These families have lost everything," said shelter manager Tanya Roque.

Lives and property lost

Ismael told a story of survival that was echoed - almost word for word - by at least a dozen children at shelters in La Libertad and other affected communities. In the early morning hours of 8 November, he recalled, rapidly rising floodwaters took his sleeping family by surprise. They had to flee, leaving behind their home and all their belongings, which were lost in the deluge.

"My grandmother's house was also wrecked," Ismael said. "There's no kitchen. There's nothing."

The devastation in Melara came from an adjacent river that surged beyond its banks, washing away houses and even the concrete pilings of a highway bridge nearby. In other areas, homes and infrastructure were damaged or destroyed by avalanches of mud and boulders from deforested hillsides and mountain slopes.

Overall, the floods and landslides killed some 200 people, destroyed or damaged thousands of homes and wiped out vital water-supply and power systems.

Supplies for the displaced

In the disaster's immediate aftermath, displaced families desperately needed essential supplies, including food and safe water. Government and humanitarian agencies responded quickly enough to prevent widespread disease outbreaks. UNICEF provided 250,000 litres of bottled water and 140 hygiene kits in those first weeks.

UNICEF also distributed 3,500 kits with household items for families whose belongings had been buried in mud or washed away. About a third of the shelter residents are children.

"I have three little boys here who are two, three and four months old," said Emma Rojas, manager of a shelter in Ilopnago, on the outskirts of San Salvador. "The rest are anywhere from 2 to 12 years old."

In early December, 160 families remained in the shelter, most of them from the hard-hit municipality of Joya Grande, where 175 homes were rendered uninhabitable. "Most of the people here have no home to return to," said Ms. Rojas. "Their houses are completely buried."

A sense of normalcy

Even as their basic needs are met, many youths who experienced the floods remain fearful and insecure. To help relieve their stress, UNICEF has provided psycho-social counselling services and recreation kits for several thousand children.

Play activities in the shelters are designed to help children regain a sense of normalcy, and they seem to be having an impact.

"I was afraid but I feel better," said Jocelyn Beatrice a la Costa, 11, who was playing with her friends at a shelter in San Vicente department. "Here, I can forget a little bit what happened."

More international aid needed

Now, UNICEF and its partners in El Salvador are turning from the initial recovery phase to rehabilitation. With hundreds of homes destroyed and thousands damaged, building permanent housing for displaced families will be a major challenge. And much more international funding is needed to repair the country's infrastructure.

In mid-November, the United Nations issued a flash appeal asking international donors to provide additional humanitarian aid for Salvadoran flood victims. The appeal includes $3.2 million for UNICEF's emergency programmes. To date, however, the donor response has been disappointing.

"We propose, through the flash appeal, to support the country through the rehabilitation of the water system, the hygiene and the sanitation that were really affected by the emergency," said UNICEF Representative in El Salvador Miriam de Figueroa.

To get back on their feet, she added, flood-affected families need "urgent intervention."

Meanwhile, Ismael spends his days and nights at the shelter in La Libertad. School is out for now, but when classes resume in January, the shelter will be converted back into a school. Along with all thousands of others now taking refuge in school buildings, Ismael's family will have to find someplace else to live - once again testing the resilience they have shown in the wake of a life-changing disaster.