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Bolivian Capital Buried by Worst Storm in 500 Years

Bolivia Battered By Worst Storm in 500 Years

LA PAZ, Bolivia, February 20, 2002 (ENS) - A violent storm that swept through the Bolivian capital Tuesday has claimed 48 lives police officials said today. The storm brought the worst floods and hailstorms in the 500 year history of the city. Local media report 130 people are injured and 50 people are still missing.

The heavy rains and hail that hit the Bolivian capital caused the Choqueyapu River to burst its banks. Torrents of water poured through the streets destroying road surfaces and brick walls.

The water broke up chunks of snow and ice on the streets and sent them crashing into shops and residences of the Andean mountain city situated two miles above sea level.

After nearly an hour of pounding hail, the air was filled with wailing sirens and the cries of people clinging to trees and calling for help. Some were swept away to their deaths. Five people were found dead in the San Francisco tunnel after the storm flooded the underground channel.

The worst affected areas are the Deep Street Market, Jarampampa, and southern districts of the city.

Some 1,600 people are involved in the relief and rescue operations including police and Army personnel wielding picks and shovels working against time to dig out people who are trapped in the rubble.

President Jorge Quiroga paid a personal visit to the affected areas. The government of Bolivia has declared a state of emergency in La Paz, but has not, so far, requested international assistance.

The United Nations resident coordinator in Bolivia reports that the government has called representatives of the international community to a meeting today in order to brief them on the situation.

The Red Cross says because these rains have been more intense than those normally experienced during the December to May rainy season, "there is concern that they could be a harbinger of the El Niño weather phenomemon which last appeared with devastating impact in 1997 and 1998."

On January 10, the U.S. National Climate Prediction Center announced that warming is being observed over the Tropical Pacific, which could lead to an El Niño by early spring.

Storm Devastates Bolivian Capital

The Associated Press, Feb. 21, 2002

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Bulldozers cleared mud from the streets, and rescue workers on pulled more bodies from swollen rivers around Bolivia's capital, bringing the death toll from powerful rainstorms to 69 people.

Mayor Juan del Granado said Thursday that another 150 people were injured and 122 families who lost their homes were sheltered at the city's main soccer stadium. He put the damage at $60 million.

Among the latest bodies to be found were those of a retired army colonel and a policewoman who both drowned trying to rescue others, police said.

The storm on Tuesday was the most powerful in the capital's history, collapsing scores of homes and cutting electricity under a torrent of rain and hail that quickly flooded La Paz, which is located at the lowest point of a natural bowl surrounded by the Andes mountains.

Development Minister Ramiro Cavero said almost a gallon of water per square foot fell on the city in less than an hour Tuesday.

Many of the dead were vendors who ran to street underpasses where they drowned in flash flooding.

"So many people were screaming for help," said Raquel Lauri, a 15-year-old working nearby at her mother's outdoor cosmetics stand. "But anyone who went out to do something was immediately swept away."

Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga declared a state of emergency in La Paz on Wednesday. Quiroga, who donated blood, promised financial support for victims, but also appealed for foreign aid to help with reconstruction.

Authorities said the United Nations offered to coordinate reconstruction works.

The National Meteorological Service said the city has not had such an intense rain in the 50 years it has kept records.

"This street always floods a little in heavy rains, so right away we closed the metal entranceway to our shop," said Viviana Lima, 20, who works in an underground gallery. "But the water crashed in through another door, and the room began filling up with water."

She said the water kept rising and she thought she would die, but a man in the room forced open the door, and everyone ran to the next level of shops.

Copyright © 2002, The Associated Press