Bolivia Battered By Worst Storm in 500 Years

LA PAZ, Bolivia, February 20, 2002 (ENS) - A violent storm that swept through the Bolivian capital Tuesday has claimed 48 lives police officials said today. The storm brought the worst floods and hailstorms in the 500 year history of the city. Local media report 130 people are injured and 50 people are still missing.

The heavy rains and hail that hit the Bolivian capital caused the Choqueyapu River to burst its banks. Torrents of water poured through the streets destroying road surfaces and brick walls.

La Paz

Flood damage in La Paz (Photo courtesy Los Tiempos)
The water broke up chunks of snow and ice on the streets and sent them crashing into shops and residences of the Andean mountain city situated two miles above sea level.

After nearly an hour of pounding hail, the air was filled with wailing sirens and the cries of people clinging to trees and calling for help. Some were swept away to their deaths.

Five people were found dead in the San Francisco tunnel after the storm flooded the underground channel.

The worst affected areas are the Deep Street Market, Jarampampa, and southern districts of the city.

Some 1,600 people are involved in the relief and rescue operations including police and Army personnel wielding picks and shovels working against time to dig out people who are trapped in the rubble.

President Jorge Quiroga paid a personal visit to the affected areas. The government of Bolivia has declared a state of emergency in La Paz, but has not, so far, requested international assistance.

The United Nations resident coordinator in Bolivia reports that the government has called representatives of the international community to a meeting today in order to brief them on the situation.

river

The Huaycoloro River in Lima, Peru broke out of its banks in early February (Photo courtesy IFRC)
In neighboring Peru, the Peruvian Red Cross remains on alert after seven days of heavy rains and floods earlier this month which have four people dead and 1,660 families affected in 11 of Peru's 24 departments.

The Red Cross says because these rains have been more intense than those normally experienced during the December to May rainy season, "there is concern that they could be a harbinger of the El Niņo weather phenomemon which last appeared with devastating impact in 1997 and 1998."

On January 10, the U.S. National Climate Prediction Center announced that warming is being observed over the Tropical Pacific, which could lead to an El Niņo by early spring.