MOCOA, Colombia – The Mocoa River gave life to the Colombian city that bears its name, has benefited from its waters and has prospered on its banks, but this Saturday its raging floods devastated the municipality and left at least 254 people dead.
“This river was the source of wealth,” Ramiro Alzate, a merchant of the town who watched as mudslides carried away his store, told EFE.
The city originally clung to the riverbank, locals say, as protection against the indigenous peoples that attacked the first Spanish settlement.
Surrounded by the Amazon jungle, Mocoa’s great natural riches have made it an ecotourism attraction that welcomes thousands of travelers from around the globe, particularly to see End of the World Park.
But now nature has rebelled against the close to 50,000 inhabitants of a city that is also crossed by the Sangoyaco and Mulatos Rivers, tributaries of the Mocoa, which in the early hours Saturday disastrously overflowed its banks in the midst of heavy rains.
“All that night I was afraid and didn’t know what to do, and when we started to hear the mudslide approaching, some friends helped us close up shop and get out of there,” Alzate said.
In the city, a typical Colombian jungle community with little in the way of communications, people have a certain fear of mudslides.
This was not the first time it happened: older residents remember others back in the 1940s and the floods of July 1974, but none as bad as this.
The Mocoa business district is reduced to rubble. Around one of the bridges of the El Porvenir neighborhood, the overflowing river knocked down houses and poured through the streets.
Alzate escaped from that area, and in an example of admirable tenacity now works to reconstruct the lives of “four or five families.”
At the same time he is trying to overcome what he saw when he returned hours after the mudslide to a scene of total destruction, with an enormous “loss of life, basic goods, businesses, homes, cars and motorcycles.”
Also critical is the situation in the San Miguel neighborhood, where the flood was so intense that it destroyed the wall around the city jail.
Now only an electric fence separates the inmates’ cells from what until a few days ago was a very attractive and popular neighborhood.
On Monday, the scene at San Miguel is Dantesque, because the mudslides, besides sweeping away the prison wall and the homes of local residents, left a trail of destruction with giant rocks and tree trunks on a path blasted open by the force of the rivers.
Nonetheless, Carlos Toro, like many other local merchants, faces the future with strength and composure, and though he knows the coming days will be difficult, he works tirelessly while remembering “with nostalgia” the neighbors he has lost.
“What I have lost is practically everything in the way of material possessions, and we have to start again from zero,” he said, and yet was very happy because his family survived.