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  • Writer's pictureLuis A Mazariegos

January 2023 - A Friday the 13th Nightmare @ MPNR

The day began as an atypical one at the reserve. A beautiful clear blue sky surrounded the mountains and remained this way throughout most of the day. The afternoon fog that usually begins at 2 pm never arrived and allowed for a full day of work without the usual rain interruptions.

Photo taken by Elver Ledesma on Friday, Januray 13th, 2023.

That afternoon after visiting the reserve, Elver Ledesma, our Environmental Management & Education Coordinator, while returning to Jardin in the Jeep that provides transportation to the La Mesenia village, joked that it was Friday the 13th; a day traditionally known to bring bad luck. Someone commented that this was just superstition and nothing bad had occurred. As if it was a premonition of things to come, Elver replied that the day still hadn’t ended. The skies turned stormy later that evening which brought 35-mm (almost an inch-and-a-half) of rain during four hours as recorded at our weather station. An important amount but nothing out of the ordinary. Yet around 11 pm a record setting 70-mm (short of three inches) downpour occurred within an hour’s time.

Osman López, our Science Assistant and Park Ranger who tends to the field station went to bed around 9 pm. Before midnight, Osman was woken up by a tremor and loud noise. He thought a landslide had occurred nearby. As he walked out, he noticed the loud noise came from the San Juan Antioquia River that flows in front of the station. The river had risen and was bringing a load of rocks and logs downstream. He immediately messaged the Rendon family downstream warning them about this. Fifteen minutes later, he heard a much louder noise that kept increasing. He ran towards one of the hanging bridges in front of the station and saw how a huge avalanche tore the bridge as if it was aluminum foil. He ran towards the area where we park the vehicles and saw the second bridge being torn apart.

Aftermath of logs and rocks left behind spread across the valley, even reaching as far as the Cauca River.

The ground shaked and panic invaded Osman. He knew this avalanche was heading for the La Mesenia village. He got his phone and called Uriel Rendon to warn him of the imminent danger. [Less than a month ago we had installed the internet service at the village using our antenna to have a means of communicating with families.] Uriel had already been woken up by the first avalanche and had left his home together his daughter Diana looking for higher ground. They were able to witness how this second wave tore the valley. Two more avalanches swept down the valley, the last one at 4:30 am, that added uncertainty of what had happened.

In front of the field station where the hanging bridges and heliport were located.

Evelio Rendon, our Infrastructure Builder, took his family uphill as large hail impacted them. Helping his 85-year-old dad, a diabetic, and a 20-year-old sibling who has a neurological disorder since birth, was a priority. The ten-member family spent the rest of the night under some trees above their home. As the valley narrows in front of their home, the avalanche tore the riverbanks knocking down trees and finally cutting electric power. Darkness bought uncertainty of the extent of the damage and they could only wait under the rain for morning to arrive.

The Rendon family house and Evelio's work shop, once 30 feet from the river bank.

First light brought images of devastation. What was once a green valley with a meandering river, was now covered with logs, rocks of all sizes and a raging river changing directions constantly. Fortunately, no human lives were lost. Yet 18 heads of cattle were swept by the avalanche, fourteen of them from Francisco Agudelo. The cattle were trapped between two raging flows that coincided in time, the San Juan and the Revesa creek, the later one cutting through eroded pasturelands carrying rocks and mud

Doña Fabiola's home partially damaged.

Luckily, I was spared this nightmare. That Friday the 13th evening I had packed my bags to leave at 4 AM the next day for the airport to fly to Medellín and then drive to the reserve. I had delayed the trip for one day since a group from the USA planning to visit the reserve had decided to change the arrival date. I learned of the event as I woke up and anxiously awaited further news from Osman. I was able to make it to Jardin later that day but reaching the reserve was not possible. Parts of the road had been washed away and the river was impassable.

"La Peña" pass where the river rose over 60 feet destroying the road and safety rail.

Local rescue teams failed also to reach the area. Only until the following Wednesday was a Blackhawk helicopter able to land near the station and rescue five of the elders that were flown to Jardin to safer ground. In the meantime the usual visits of politicians, police and rescue teams composed of firemen, came to take a look but explained the difficulties of providing assistance to rebuild any infrastructure. The former appeared more worried about appearing on TV or a YouTube video shaking hands with the locals. Several houses were impacted by this event, and some will have to be rebuilt on “safer” ground.

The trail to "El Alto" was completely cut-off and will remain closed for many months.

This once in a 300-year event shows how climate change can wreak havoc in the Andes region and reminds us on how vulnerable we are. On January 20, Osman Lopez and Alejandro Suarez, our drone operator, were able to climb to El Alto trail. The trail basically disappeared as 28 landslides scarred the surrounding mountains. Even the smallest of rivulets carved 60-feet (20-meter) wide channels. In the end, it appears luck was on our side. If the four avalanches or even the first two had joined forces, the whole La Mesenia village, including our field station, would have been destroyed. Now we will be able to record and witness how nature heals the visible scars in time replacing them with vegetation.

Partial view of 28 landslides leaving scared mountains behind.

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