Sat, Nov 24, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Mexico attempts to account for lack of flood preparation


The government knew Mexico's Gulf coast was a disaster in waiting long before three rivers surged out of their banks, flooding nearly every inch of the low-lying state of Tabasco and leaving more than 1 million homes under water.

But officials admit they never finished a US$190 million levee project that was supposed to have been done last year and would have held back much of the rising waters that flooded Tabasco at the end of last month.

The tragedy was reminiscent of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005, when levees failed and swamped much of New Orleans, forcing people to flee by wading through dirty waters. In Tabasco, days of relentless rain -- not a hurricane -- were to blame.

Tabasco Governor Andres Granier said 280 people are still unaccounted for three weeks later. The flooding killed at least 33 people in Tabasco and Chiapas.


Both the state and federal government acknowledge Tabasco wasn't prepared for unusually heavy rains last month, even though a flood-control plan had been drawn up in 1999.

In 2003, officials announced the Integral Project Against Flooding, which called for building 179km of levees and 190km of drainage canals along the Grijalva, Carrizal and Samaria rivers.

But state officials admit they never finished the levee project, 72 percent of which was funded by the federal government.

It's not known what happened to the money earmarked for the project. State officials say the federal government didn't deliver all the money. Congress members responsible for allocating the funds left office last year and it isn't clear who was responsible for that part of the budget.

Gilberto Segovia, the Tabasco spokesman for the National Water Commission, said about 70 percent of the levees and drainage canals were built. Although the original plan called for all to be completed last year, former governor Manuel Andrade, who left office last year and was largely responsible for carrying out the project, had pushed the deadline forward to 2012.


Some critics say the Federal Electricity Commission waited too long to begin letting water out of a dam upstream, forcing workers to release a huge amount in a short time when the reservoir level surged.

The agency also gave little warning to people downstream, critics contend.

Some people also blame deforestation in Mexico's highlands, saying that has lessened the ability of mountainous terrain to absorb heavy rainfall and reduce runoff into low-lying areas.

Senator Arturo Nunez, a leftist politician from Tabasco, says officials at all levels failed.

"It's clear they didn't take all the precautions that they could have, many of which were clear after what happened in 1999," he said. "While we may not have been able to avoid the tragedy, it wouldn't have had the same dimension and magnitude."

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