Health the priority after Argentine floods

Published: 7 May 2003 0:00 CET

Paola Chorna in Santa Fe

As the north-eastern Argentine province of Santa Fe slowly recovers from last week’s devastating floods, attention is turning to preventing health emergencies caused by the disaster.

The floods are being described by the Civil Defence as the worst for a century. “The water rose so fast. I have never experienced anything like it,” said local resident, Rosa Aguirre. So far 23 people have been killed in the floods, but the authorities believe it is likely that more bodies will be found once the floodwaters recede. Some 900 people are still unaccounted for.

More than 100,000 people have been evacuated or have left their homes as a result of the floods, but thousands have elected to remain on the upper floors of their homes to deter looters.

The Argentine Health Minister, Gines Gonzalez Garcia has declared the sanitary situation in Santa Fe to be “under control,” but stressed that the authorities were still working hard to reduce the risk of epidemics. González García said he was worried about the collapse of the refuse collection service and of the water and sanitation systems.

"There are still lots of people on rooftops surrounded by stagnant waters,” said Dario Montenegro, Vice Director of the Cullen Public Hospital. “So we could expect a large number of gastroenteritis cases and other related diseases”.

The Argentine Red Cross (CRA) is also concerned: “The majority of the evacuation centres show evident signs of overcrowding, limited sanitary resources and poor hygienic conditions. In many centres, people are living together with animals,” said Federation health consultant, José Luis Peraza, who is based in Santa Fe.

“We are coordinating our efforts with the Health Ministry, in particular in vaccination activities and implementing a preventive health campaign,” he explained.

The Argentine Red Cross is helping out at 70 of the 517 evacuation centres, many of them improvised. Some 640 CRA volunteers – 150 of them from Santa Fe and the rest from other different parts of the country - are helping those affected by the emergency.

Some of those affected, like Rocio and Luisa, come from comfortable middle-class neighbourhoods. The couple now watch their children run around a room in the Hotel España, which since last week has given shelter to several evacuated people "We are from the Roma neighbourhood and had to come here because we have four children and the only way of reaching out second-floor apartment was by inflatable boat and through a neighbour’s window," said Luisa. "People like us feel shame to ask for help and relief."

She sighs as she relates her story to volunteers from the CRA Santa Fe branch who are giving psychological assistance to those forced out of their homes.

"I console myself with the thought that we have lost our furniture, books, all our possessions - but at least my family still together, not like those people whose loved ones are missing,” Luisa says. As well as receiving emotional support, she is also giving it, consoling herself by consoling others.

The floods have brought out many people’s survival instincts. Some families, tired of living on the streets with their children on the streets, have taken matters into their own hands by staking their claim to a house with the tempting sign "For rent" by changing it to "For occupiers".

For others, the floods have taken virtually everything. "I wanted to rescue my photos, and now I am trying to dry them. They are the only memories I have left” said Antonio Valverde. “Everything I and my family have built up over 20 years was lost in half an hour.

From the very start of the disaster, the Argentine Red Cross activated its Emergency Operations Centre at its headquarters and in Santa Fe province.

CRA staff and volunteers took part in search and rescue activities and reinforced hospital emergency services locally, while at national level, they collected donations from the public of non-perishable food, clothing, mattresses and blankets.

The situation continues to be monitored closely, and information is constantly collated from the National University and the Civil Protection.

On Tuesday, the International Federation launched an emergency appeal for 607,000 Swiss francs (over US$ 450,000). The Federation had already released 50,000 Swiss francs from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund, which will cover the immediate non-food needs of those affected by the floods. The operation also seeks to enhance community disaster preparedness in the event of future disasters.

The Argentine Red Cross will provide assistance to 8,000 persons accommodated in 16 evacuation centres in Santa Fe. This assistance comprises one month of food assistance, hygiene kits, cooking sets and water storage containers. In addition, further food assistance will be provided, together with psychosocial support to some 4,000 people obliged to remain in shelters for a longer period.

On their return home, 800 families will be provided with cleaning kits to help them clean their homes. In addition, each family will receive a 20 litres container to store water.

Related links:

Santa Fe foods: emergency appeal
Argentina: appeals, updates and reports
Argentine Red Cross
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