The latest report from the government in Chile says that the death toll of the floods that struck northern Chile on 26 March 2015, has now risen to 24.
Police have been able to access more detailed information regarding the number of missing people as more people come forward with information. The total number of missing people now stands at 69, considerably higher than the initial figure of 24. Rescuers say that it is still likely that the death toll will rise as more victims are found.
The government’s report of 01 April 2015 says that a total of 29,741 people have been affected by the floods. As many as 2,532 victims are still homeless and are being housed in 28 shelters set up by civil protection agency ONEMI. The shelters are also being used to provide meals and distribute supplies to other flood victims. Shelters in Atacama, for example, provide meals for around 6,000 people during the evening.
There are serious concerns over the health of people in flooded areas. Medical centres have suffered damage, in particular in Atacama region, which in turn has limited medical supplies such as vaccines.
Chile’s Ministry of Health (MINSAL) said on 31 March 2015 that it has sent 89,000 flu vaccines, 27,000 Tetanus vaccines and 7,600 Hepatitis A vaccines, to affected areas in Antofagasta and Atacama regions.
Health officials are also concerned at the safety of drinking water in flood-affected areas. For several days after the floods first struck, 1000s were left without clean drinking water.
Visiting food-hit areas in Antofagasta, Health Minister Angelica Verdugo called for people to boil all drinking water for at least 1 minute, or use purification tablets.
Why Were the Floods in Northern Chile so Severe?
It’s a question that many people may have. The rainfall amounts were small when compared to other flood events. Antofagasta saw 24.4 mm of rain (less than an inch) in 24 hours between 25 and 26 March 2015.
7 Years of Rain
The total amount may be small, but relative to what the area is used to, 24.4 mm of rain is a huge amount. In fact, it would normally take 7 years for this area to see that amount of rain.
According to RMS, the catastrophe risk modeling company, “the region, which forms part of the Atacama Desert, is extremely arid and as a result has little soil or vegetation, allowing rainfall to instantly form torrential runoff.”
Add to this the fact that inland areas in the region rise steeply towards the Atacama Plateau, which reaches elevations of 4,000 metres (13,000 feet). Copiapó in Atacama region, for example, stands at about 400 metres (1270 feet) above sea level. Just one kilometre from the city and the hillsides and mountains rise to 1360 m (4,500 feet). Storm runoff hitting dry baked earth and desert rocks will quickly head down the steep mountain slopes. By the time the runoff had reached coastal areas such as Taltal and Chañaral, it had become a raging torrent.
What Caused the Unusually Heavy Rain?
According to RMS, the heavy rains “resulted from an unusually strong and persistent “cut-off” low pressure system that was trapped over Chile by an exceptionally strong ridge of high pressure.
“Unusually warm ocean temperatures, approximately 1°C (1.8°F) above average, off the coast meant that high amounts of water vapor were available to fuel the storm and generate exceptionally heavy rains as a cold front associated with the cut-off low hit the Andes Mountains”.
El Nino and Warmer Seas
The warmer sea temperatures and therefore the floods in Chile are connected to El Niño. RMS say:
“Heavy precipitation events are common in Chile during El Niño events, as is being experienced now, partly as it brings warmer than average waters to the Pacific coast of South America where Chile lies.”
For more about the RMS report on the floods in northern Chile, see their website here.