Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Dean Highlighted Preparedness as Well as Vulnerability

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Aug 23 2007 (IPS) - Hurricane Dean, one of the four strongest hurricanes to make landfall since records began to be kept, demonstrated the high level of development achieved by local disaster prevention and civil protection plans in Mexico, but also the country’s environmental vulnerability, caused by human activities.

United Nations spokespersons congratulated Mexico for its timely evacuation of around 80,000 people and distribution of emergency services.

Dean slammed into Mexico on Tuesday, hitting the Yucatan Peninsula, crossing the Gulf of Mexico and only losing steam on Thursday in central Mexico, leaving behind four dead – according to unofficial preliminary reports – flooding, and the destruction of crops and humble dwellings.

Experts warn that the gradual destruction of natural barriers like coastal mangroves, caused, for example, by the construction of hotels and condominiums especially in Mexico’s Caribbean region, has increased the destructive power of hurricanes.

The same is true of the heavy deforestation occurring throughout Mexico – around 250,000 hectares of forest are destroyed annually, according to official figures – which reduces the soil’s capacity to absorb water and makes land more vulnerable to flooding and landslides.

Although Dean caused less damage than was expected, its impact was stronger than it could have been because of the deforestation suffered by the country, President Felipe Calderón acknowledged while visiting areas hit by the storm.

According to the environmental watchdog Greenpeace International, Mexico’s forested areas are disappearing at a rate of 600,000 hectares or more a year – more than double the rate estimated by the government.

Forests cover some 56 million hectares in Mexico, out of a total territory of 196 million hectares.

In the capital, where lakes and plant cover long ago gave way to cement, Dean arrived in the form of heavy rainfall, which lasted for more than 17 hours on Wednesday and Thursday.

The city’s antiquated drainage system was unable to cope with the downpour and came to the verge of collapse, which led to flooding in parts of central Mexico City, with many roads cut off and poor neighbourhoods overflowing.

The effects of irresponsible public policies and corrupt authorities can be seen in the destruction in coastal areas, the deforestation, and the lack of planning in many cities which are now more vulnerable to climatic phenomena, Sergio de la Peña, a lawyer who advises companies on environmental questions, told IPS.

The strong winds blew the roofs off of hundreds of fragile houses of the less well-off along the coast, crops were devastated, rivers overran their banks and highways flooded. The economic losses have not yet been assessed.

But although like previous hurricanes, Dean highlighted environmental problems in Mexico, it also showed how well the country is doing in terms of disaster prevention.

The Calderón administration and the governments of the states that were affected by the storm acted in a timely, effective manner, informing the local populations, providing assistance, and re-establishing public services.

Mexico has reached this level of preparedness in the wake of many natural disasters, including earthquakes, volcanos, tropical storms and hurricanes.

The prevention policies that went into effect this week in Mexico are an example for other countries, said United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction officials.

Before the hurricane crashed into the country, major damages and large numbers of victims were predicted.

The media reported that Dean left a death toll of nine in Haiti, two in Dominica, six in the Dominican Republic, one in St. Lucia, and three in Jamaica.

By the time Dean touched land in the Yucatan, it was a category five hurricane, after which it declined to category two and one on Wednesday, before finally becoming just a tropical storm.

Since records began to be kept in the region in 1851, only three others were category five when they made landfall: The Labor Day Hurricane that hit the Florida Keys on Sept. 2, 1935; Hurricane Camille, which slammed into Mississippi on Aug. 17, 1969; and Hurricane Andrew in southeast Florida on Aug. 24, 1992.

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