Where flash floods are routine
By David Connelly, KF10 Peru/KF11 Colombia
In Barranquilla you have to seriously reevaluate your plans when it rains. Or as a friend nonchalantly told me: “Unlike other cities where rain means ‘don’t forget the umbrella,’ here in Barranquilla it means ‘don’t leave home.’” Arroyos. The word means “stream,” or at least that’s what I thought when I arrived here on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. But people kept mentioning how these arroyos pop up any time it rains, how big they get, how they have their own names, how they can carry off buses, how they kill people. None of that fits my schema for “stream.”
I started my placement at the beginning of the rainy season in late May and got my first taste about a week in. I’d heard telltale signs of rainfall from my cubicle and was stunned when after only about 30 minutes I saw this scene outside my office:'
“That’s not an arroyo,” a coworker quickly pointed out. “There’s no current. That’s just a big puddle.” Despite his total nonchalance, my mind was blown. That video shows one of the city’s busiest downtown intersections totally flooded by a short downpour, and the scene has been repeated several times a week since I arrived. Life slows when it rains, but even all that water can’t stop everything. Street vendors and the homeless make a buck by dragging out make-shift bridges to help everyone else keep their feet dry (cost to cross: 10-20 cents).
I finally saw my first arroyo shortly after moving to a new apartment in a slightly lower section of town.'
That video was taken after it had been raining for maybe 10 minutes. As it turns out, Barranquilla isn’t a particularly wet place: outside September and October, New York City has higher monthly precipitation averages.* And in my brief experience storms here haven’t been that intense; they seem almost gentle compared to a good midwestern thunderstorm.** The drainage system is just ridiculously, tragically poor. There aren’t nearly enough canals so in many places the sidewalk has been elevated a few extra feet to accommodate the huge, regular flows of water that so completely disrupt and characterize life in Barranquilla.
The poorer neighborhoods get the worst of it, as unregulated construction and a general lack of infrastructure greatly magnify the danger and the damage. They also typically sit downstream from other areas, and some people here have an infuriating tendency to throw their garbage into stronger arroyos to be swept into the Great Beyond (see a few such irresponsible citizens in the video below). As a result, old tires, cut branches, and broken glass amp up the danger swirling in the swift flows. The most recent tragedy happened just a few weeks ago. On July 12, a sudden downpour led to a stronger than normal arroyo that stole a 6 month-old infant from her mother’s arms after crashing through the wall of the family’s home. Three other people disappeared and 62 neighborhoods flooded. (See local coverage and slideshow in El Heraldo [esp])'
But this is Barranquilla. Arroyos are something unique to the city that insinuate themselves into daily conversations. Just this morning, FMSD’s Kiva coordinator punctuated her description of a rougher neighborhood by telling me it was so tough that “the kids go swimming in the arroyos.” And this identity marker isn’t going anywhere soon. It’s a problem that’s far too expensive to fix.
**Apparently the storms get more intense in the coming months, so I’m not even seeing the really strong arroyos.