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When the Rains Came to the Desert

Dealing with a deluge at Sir Alexander Fleming College, the British School of Trujillo in northern Peru

By John Benson

07/20/2017

On 14 March, I left school at the end of a pretty typical day. Very unusually for a Tuesday, I went for a drink with my wife and a couple of colleagues. On our way home, we suddenly noticed it was raining. It doesn’t rain much here in Trujillo, Peru’s third most populous city—on average only 4.3 mm a year—but it is in March, the wettest month of the year, that 40 percent of the annual rainfall tends to come. Nothing like the 20 mm I woke up to after one huge, several-hour overnight downpour.

I somehow slept through it all, waking at about 6:30 a.m. to get ready for school only to find my wife mopping out the bedroom. She’d been at it for about three hours. I put my foot down into a pool of water. We’d been flooded out. Our apartment is on the fourth floor of a five-story building, but it rains so little here that many homes have an uncovered area. Ours, measuring about 4 m by 1 m, is situated between the kitchen and the washing area. School had been cancelled by this point. We wouldn’t have been able to go in, anyway. The next nine hours were spent getting rid of the water. We thought that would be it, we’d be back at school the next day.

Two weeks later, flood waters and mud slides had hit the city center for the sixth time in less than a week. Going to school became an afterthought. The force of the flood surpassed anything that we’d seen in the previous 14 days. The main square, Plaza de Armas, was flooded and many streets saw enough water to resemble rivers.

To reach the old city the water had to travel 10 km down from the hills surrounding Trujillo. If this was the damage so far away from the source, we thought, what was it like in the city’s poorest districts, where the gulley and epicenter of floodwaters were located? There, houses were completely destroyed while vehicles, gardens, and animals were covered in several meters of mud. The fresh water supply collapsed, the electricity was cut off, and food quickly became scarce in local supermarkets and stores. Businesses closed, and some have still been unable to reopen. Residents protested the lack of concern and support from authorities. Help was sporadic; people received water for basic needs from tanker trucks that reached their neighborhoods only sporadically. Many lost everything.

With little help from the authorities, people around the city took things into their own hands. Where we live, sandbags were used to protect almost every building and small, impromptu walls sometimes appeared to keep water away from doorways and parking lots. Many are still there, as are the sandbags. Levees of sandbags also blocked streets, making it very difficult for vehicles to get around. Meanwhile, groups of people stood in front of their homes and apartment buildings ready to brush back the advancing waters they knew were making their way towards them.

The problems did not end when the waters subsided. The floods left vast amounts of dry river mud in their wake and as it dried the air quickly filled with dust. Since Trujillo is a coastal city, the sea breezes regularly picked up this dust and swirled it around, making breathing difficult. During the worst moments of this crisis, a 20-minute walk was unbearable. We essentially became housebound, except for a brief daily foray out for lunch. The restaurants were still managing to produce their staple two-course lunches, but business was at a lull as people struggled to get around.

The meteorological institute predicted that this coastal Niño phenomenon, caused by high surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean (up to 10 degrees centigrade higher than normal), would continue for several more weeks. One significant overnight downpour last week left 5 mm of rain in its wake, but without the previous build-up of water and the awful consequences that it brought, this has helped keep the dust down.

We returned to school a month after the first and hardest downpour hit the city. Twenty-one school days were lost. The Ministry of Education has decreed that all missed days must be made up and so we have our plan in place. Three of those days have already been caught up.

Not all students were so lucky, as a number of schools were damaged in the flooding. It is a small window into the work ahead. Rebuilding the city will be no easy task.

Countrywide, some 500,000 people were displaced, 200 people died, roads were destroyed, and close to 100 bridges collapsed. The main north-south Panamerican Highway was cut off in both directions for around a month. Vehicles were stuck for up to three days by the side of highways at one point as the authorities struggled to manage the temporary detours created while bridges were being rebuilt.

One can only hope that the authorities will take the opportunity not only to rebuild the city but to undertake a reconstruction of the social model. A lot can be learned from the way the residents acted throughout this whole episode and in the way they have begun to pick up the pieces of their lives and their city under the slogan Una Sola Fuerza, which loosely translates as “One Single Force.” Will it be?

John Benson is the Deputy Head of School at Sir Alexander Fleming College, the British School of Trujillo, Peru. The school´s programs are IBDP, IGCSE, and IMYC. It´s also a PYP candidate school.




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