BARBABLANCA, Peru – Gathered along the edge of a mountain, the men, women and children of Barbablanca watched in stunned silence as a river of mud washed over their small village.
The mud slid into windows, covering carefully made beds and school desks. It buried fields filled with avocado trees and the village’s prized ripe green cherimoya fruit. It left Barbablanca’s hydroelectric plant an enclosure of metal rods planted in a blanket of sludge.
“We’ve lost everything,” said Ricardo Lazaro, 73, whose life’s savings were put into building a small hotel destroyed in the worst environmental calamity to strike Peru in nearly two decades. “I don’t know who will help me.”
The rains pummeling Peru, brought about by a warming of Pacific Ocean waters that climatologists are calling a “coastal El Nino,” have left 85 dead, crippled the nation’s infrastructure, ruined thousands of fields of crops and destroyed 800 villages, most much like Barbablanca.
Situated at the foot of the Andes 40 miles (65 kilometers) from the capital city of Lima, Barbablanca is a community of 160 people, many of whom are small farmers dedicated to growing the sweet, heart-shaped cherimoya. Life in Barbablanca revolves around the crops, a red schoolhouse, a medical clinic and a hydroelectric plant at the base of a giant mountain.
In January, the residents of Barbablanca began noticing steady, unusual rains, and in early March, the downpours became worrying. For two weeks, it rained for more than six hours a day. The residents decided that if rainfall worsened and a mudslide seemed imminent, they would flee up the mountain to higher ground.
Mudslides have struck throughout Peru in March as the rains have continued. On cellphone cameras, Peruvians have captured video of sudden gushes of water, mud and debris that swept up trucks, buses, people and cows. One woman, Evangelina Chamorro, survived after being swept nearly 2 miles (3 kilometers) from her home and emerging near a bridge covered in muck.
On March 16th, the rain began to fall on Barbalanca so fiercely that being outside almost felt “like a shower,” recalled Lazaro, who with his wife owns a seven-room hotel.
When the sound of thunder rumbled in the sky, Lazaro put a lock on the hotel door and decided to leave.
“Let’s get out of here,” he told his wife, joining several dozen other residents, a few in ponchos and others carrying plastic tarps, up the mountain.
They were perched high up on a gravel road when the unforgettable sound of a powerful current, churning with rocks and debris, filled the air. Suggeidy Rivera, 25, cried as she huddled with her three small children.
“I think we are stuck up here,” said one man as he recording a video later uploaded on YouTube. “There isn’t a way to get out.”
When the mudslide stopped and residents were able to climb down and assess the damage, they found a village buried in mud. All the furniture in Lazaro’s hotel had been swept out. The wall that divided his property from a neighbor’s had been crushed. An avocado tree rested in his kitchen.
“This has been the work of all my life,” he said tearfully on Friday.
An entire village left homeless, the residents of Barbablanca have been sleeping in a partially covered patio at a hydroelectric plant in a nearby village. There are no bathrooms and the families sleep on the bare ground, waking up with backaches. Most now own only the clothes that have been donated to them.
Peru is expected to spend at least $3.75 million in repairing bridges and roads, according to the Central Bank, but the economic toll is still accumulating. Another two weeks of rain are forecast and the state meteorological agency expects the ocean warming causing the storms to continue through April.
The Peruvian Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies announced the launch of an emergency appeal Saturday for $4 million to support 50,000 people in the hardest hit regions in northern Peru. Red Cross officials have expressed concern about the potential for outbreaks of mosquito-borne illnesses as the recovery drags on.
“This really is the worst disaster for the people of northern Peru in decades,” said Michele Detomaso, head of the IFRC team in Peru. “Its severity – and the speed with which waters came in – surpassed the capacities of the population to cope.”
Even in villages like Barbablanca relatively near the capital, there is little hope that residents will be able to entirely rebuild. At his age, Lazaro said he is clinging to the encouragement of his neighbors.
“They tell me, ‘Lazaro, get up, make an effort,'” he said. “And I have to.”
Associated Press writer Christine Armario in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.