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September 23, 2014
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Fear of an epic flood persists in the City

BA City’s neighbourhood of Villa Crespo was one of the most affected areas last year.
By Mariano Beldyk
For The Herald

A year after the inundation, residents complain the Macri administration has done little to prevent another one

On April 2, 2013, Buenos Aires City awoke to half its surface immersed in a huge mass of dark water. Eight people perished that day and thousands of residents lost their lifelong possessions in what would be a twisted prologue to the later and more lethal flood that swept away part of the Buenos Aires provincial capital of La Plata, killing 89 of its residents.

Nearly a year later, many victims are still trapped in their own living nightmares while publicly denouncing that City Hall authorities have done little to prevent the disaster from repeating itself.

On top of that, meteorologists and environmentalists insist that the so-called “freak climate” phenomenon which caused the disaster 12 months ago will no longer be “freak” in years to come.

Last week, UNEN Verde al Sur legislator Pablo Bergel headed the first meeting of the Climate Change special committee in the local Legislature with its agenda fully focused on a future flooding hypothesis.

As they did during 2013 in the days following the calamity, a large number of engineers, architects and all kinds of urban planning specialists converged in the office with lawmakers to find an explanation of what had happened that April 2 morning.

One year later, they gathered together once again in the San Martín Hall of the legislative building with no better prospects to share.

“It’s still an absent issue in the agendas of the national and local governments,” Bergel told the Herald.

“As a matter of fact, the environmental phenomenon is repeatedly used by authorities to hide their lack of planning.”

But political cockfights seem no valid explanation for neighbours who witnessed the water entering their homes a year ago to justify the delays in the area.

“Imagine you are living with a serial killer in your house. Each time, the sky gets darker, I have to start calling the elderly people in my street to calm them down. It’s unbelievable that, one year later, we can still drown or lose everything,” Parque Chas Neighbourhood Association’s Luis Poli accused.

According to Poli, no contingency plan was ever shown by City Hall to residents during the past year to instruct them on how to react in case another flooding episode of the same magnitude occurs.

“Nobody knows what to do or not to if we face a similar disaster,” added Poli.

The worst of it is Poli remarked, that nobody is aware of whether they are living in a potentially floodable zone because the risk map designed by a private consultant firm at City Hall’s request was never made public. Anybody could be standing under a volcano of water, ready to erupt during the next storm.

In August 2013, City Hall reported that nearly 80 percent of the subsidies to cover damage to property had been paid out. However, neighbourhood associations doubt what percentage of the total of victims initially signed for the assistance funding.

“Only a few could finally cash the subsidies which the local government had destined to people who suffered property damage. Mainly those who approached the local community centre and acted by themselves to get their payments. But there was no guidance at all. No City Hall official came to advise those who were affected on how to start their claims,” Amanda Rubilar, from the Villa Urquiza Neighbourhood Assembly, told the Herald.

Rubilar questioned the idea of a subsidy as a palliative and compared it to the insurance which European municipal administrations procure for residents living in floodable areas.

“The state should be held responsible for the urban infrastructure and the consequences of its flaws,” Rubilar said.

Only five from the original group of neighbours on her street are still involved in suing the local government to control the daily cleaning of street drains and the pruning of trees. But they aim higher — their objective is to secure a number of emergency policies from City Hall to ease any future flood victims’ situation so families will not have to undergo the sorrow they passed through.

That is one of the reasons they will be marching for the first anniversary of the massive flood on City Mayor Mauricio Macri’s offices with other neighbours from the affected areas next Wednesday.

An extraordinary event

Most of the people in BA City were sleeping when an extreme thunderstorm was unleashed over the capital during the early hours of April 2 last year, so strong that the drainage system was rapidly swamped and collapsed.

Soon, water started flooding the streets, pouring from the overcast sky and rising from the hidden streams that flow underground. City streets turned into rushing rivers dragging garbage, vehicles and anything in their way, including people.

Among the most affected neighbourhoods were the ones standing over the basin of the underground piped Vera river: Belgrano, Colegiales, Villa Urquiza, Villa Pueyrredón, Parque Chas, Chacarita, Agronomía and Villa Devoto.

It is a 1,712-hectare surface with a total of 315,000 residents.

Last January, Mayor Macri staged a rally to promote the public works planned to increase by 40 percent the draining capacity in the Belgrano neighbourhood sector in the event of rain.

For María Eva Koutsovitis, UBA Engineering School’s Academic Secretary for Hydraulics, big-budget mega-works are not enough until City Hall takes the most essential decision to measure the level of rainfall with a historic perspective and compares it with the current draining capacity in streets, especially after the real-estate boom which Mayor Macri’s government has been stimulating.

“If they have that data, they haven’t shared it with us when we asked for it. Civil society should be included in the emergency response as well as in the urban planning process through the Basins Committees. Water does not believe in political factions,” Koutsovitis told this newspaper.

Victory Front legislator Gabriel Fuks agreed with Koutsovitis on the urgent need to move forward into regulations over land use management as a key public policy to tackle the menace of future epic flooding.

He even mentioned the DOT shopping mall construction as an example of everything which can go wrong when no previous urban planning is conceived to forecast possible side-effects.

In the case of the IRSA-owned shopping, its drainage pumps emptied the water of the lower levels of the building last April 2 but drowned the nearby Mitre low-income neighbourhood in the process.

“With no land use management rules, it is the market which decides where and what can be built up, transforming urban development into a lethal trap. Today nobody debates where we should put cement or leave green spaces to favour the draining capacity,” Fuks protested.

Local commune representatives are working together with neighbourhood associations to introduce a number of bills in the Legislature to make obligatory the construction of “green terraces” on top of buildings together with a system of water storage tanks to balance the draining capacity sacrificed on the ground level when the structure was lifted.

Other ideas include the use of aerated concrete technology instead of the traditional high-strength one in sidewalks to improve the absorption of rain-water and lessen the volume of liquid running into the street drains.

But they are all no more than ideas while the terror of suffering another epic flooding still subsists.

@mibeldyk

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