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Friday, March 27, 2015

Weather weirding in Chile: Copiapo River dry for 17 years, swamps desert area in Atacama region

At least seven dead, more missing and stranded people airlifted from rooftops as freak downpours hit normally arid northern desert

by staff and agencies in Santiago, The Guardian, March 27, 2015

Chilean national police help evacuate people affected by the overflow of the river Copiapo in the city of the same name.
Chilean national police help evacuate people affected by the overflow of the river Copiapo in the city of the same name. Photograph: Marta Bescos/Demotix
The president of Chile has flown to the Atacama region in the country’s north where freak rains and flooding left at least seven people dead and others needing evacuation by air from swamped homes.
Communities in the desert region were struggling on Thursday to cope with a disaster that knocked out power and cut off roadways. Thunderstorms with torrential rains moved into the Atacama on Tuesday, causing the Copiapo river to overflow its banks.
Fears of mudslides prompted authorities to evacuate thousands from their homes in “the worst rain disaster to fall on the north in 80 years,” said the deputy interior minister, Mahmud Aleuy.
TV images showed brown muddy waters flooding the streets and reaching a hospital in Copiapo city. Some people living along the river had to be rescued by helicopter because roads were blocked by water and mud. TV footage showed several families waiting on the roofs of their homes, including a man who had punched a hole through his roof to save his toddler.
A man crosses a road amid the flooding in Copiapo.
 A man crosses a road amid the flooding in Copiapo. Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA
As well as the 7 dead, 19 people were listed as missing in three communities hit by flooding, officials said.
Desperate family members of the victims took to Twitter pleading for help in finding their loved ones.
The government declared a state of emergency, putting the region under military control, and President Michelle Bachelet flew to the area. “We’re living an extremely difficult situation,” she said. “The previous forecast was that there was a huge drought here, so the rains were not necessarily seen as a catastrophe. Foreseeing was really difficult because no one knew.”
The heavy rains came after several days of high temperatures and a drought that stoked raging wildfires in Chile’s south-central regions. The fires have burned nearly 93,000 hectares in the 2014-2015 season, far above the annual average of 59,300 hectares over the previous five years.
Earthquake-prone Chile is no stranger to the forces of nature. The national geological service Sernageomin said residents should be on alert due to increased activity at the Villarica volcano in the country’s south, which erupted on 3 March, forcing evacuations and disrupting air traffic.
The storms prompted Chile’s state-run copper giant Codelco to suspend work due to blocked roads. The company said on Thursday it was reopening sites in the north, including some of the world’s largest copper mines.
The Associated Press contributed to this report

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