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After the Flood

Mexico is accustomed to devastating earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and hurricanes. But Tropical Storm Noel, which later became a hurricane, was one of the worst natural disasters the country had ever experienced. In October 2007, torrential rains fell on the low-lying, swampy Mexican state of Tabasco. The normally placid Grijalva River burst its banks, and its floodwaters inundated the state capital of Villahermosa with up to eight feet of foul, muddy water. Before long, nearly the entire state, which borders the southern Gulf of Mexico, was underwater.

A bad situation was made worse by the federal electric utility’s decision to begin releasing water from the lake behind the Peñitas hydroelectric dam. But the officials said that they had no choice: If the dam had burst, it would have devastated the entire Grijalva floodplain.

At the height of the flooding, more than four-fifths of Tabasco was submerged, and the homes of nearly a million people were damaged. Villahermosa was flooded for more than a week. Two-thirds of the largely agricultural state’s farmland was flooded, wiping out Mexico's largest banana crop and wrecking the livelihoods of thousands of local people.

Despite the devastation, just 25 people were killed during the flooding, nearly all of them in a single incident in the neighboring state of Chiapas when a landslide buried a remote village. A less intense deluge in Tabasco in 1999 killed more than 600 people.

The reduction in fatalities was no mere happenstance, as I learned in my visit there shortly after Tropical Storm Noel wreaked its devastation. “We’ve been perfecting our plans for years,” Marco Franco, a member of the Mexican Red Cross team in Villahermosa, told me. 

The lesson they have learned from the past is this: “We live in a country that has a high risk for natural disasters, and we always have to be prepared for something like this,” he explained. “We have stocks prepositioned that are ready to go. We have vehicles. We have our teams. We use the intranet and e-mail to monitor and manage these resources for maximum efficiency.”

In this particular case, because the flooding took place over several days, government agencies had time to put their plans into action, and when the moment arose, federal and state emergency services responded quickly and efficiently.

The Mexican armed forces swiftly swung into action as the government sent 12,000 troops and federal police to the state. Navy personnel in boats fanned out across the city and the interior rescuing people and delivering supplies.

The Mexican Red Cross, as Franco noted, was also ready with teams that flew in from Mexico City; The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies sent in relief supplies that had been prepositioned in Panama.

A rapid immunization campaign carried out as part of the first response to the crisis and a well-organized emergency health program run by the local government with the armed forces warded off a feared epidemic of infectious disease. Emergency medical centers staffed by civilian and military doctors tended to the sick and injured. The most common problem: fungal infections picked up by wading in fetid water.

The private sector also responded with offers of assistance. “We wanted to contribute to the recovery and to mark our presence there,” says Eduardo Jiménez Granados, corporate security manager for northern Latin America at Procter & Gamble Mexico. Other companies, such as Coca-Cola, also took similar opportunities to help the local population.

As soon as the roads reopened, tractor-trailers loaded with food, water, and emergency supplies began pulling into Villahermosa. Air force cargo planes flew shuttle flights into the normally quiet airport, ferrying in urgently needed supplies and equipment.

To handle the donations that poured in from all over Mexico, Andrés Granier, Tabasco’s governor, turned the elegant gardens surrounding his immaculate white mansion into a makeshift logistics center. Trucks disgorged their loads onto the lawns, creating hills of food, clothes, and medicine. Volunteers sorted through the piles, which would be distributed to crowds of people lined up patiently outside. Watchful troops were on hand in case people became unruly, but the crowds were calm as they inched forward under a blazing sun.

In addition, throughout the region, mobile army kitchens handed out thousands of warm meals a day to those in need. Soldiers guarded major installations and intersections as well.

To help people locate missing family members and neighbors, the government installed electronic kiosks outside of the palace. The kiosks provided a way for people to use a touch screen to access a Web-based listing of the estimated 80,000 people in official and unofficial shelters. A state employee was there to assist anyone unfamiliar with touch screens or navigating Web pages.

At the local Red Cross headquarters, weeks after the disaster first struck, a three-man team was coordinating the organization’s relief effort. Leading the team was Isaac Oxenhaut Gruzko. He had arrived from California, where he had just been assisting in the American Red Cross relief efforts for people displaced by the wildfires then threatening southern California.

When I saw him, he was utterly exhausted, surviving on nervous energy and packs of Marlboros. Working from a bare, smoke-filled room, the men were linked to teams in the field and to the international Red Cross network by cell phone and wireless laptops connected to the organization’s intranet.

Gruzko fielded call after call from aid workers. His orders were swift and decisive. His fury when instructions were disobeyed or misunderstood was terrifying: “Who on this earth told you to deliver those things to the Palace?” he thundered over his cell phone at one helpless volunteer in language ripe with Spanish insults.

The Aftermath

Although the death toll was relatively light, the economic impact of the disaster was immense, and Tabasco will probably take years to recover. The state government at the time estimated the disaster’s impact at $5 billion.

The extent of the damage became visible as the floodwaters receded. The stench of dead animals and rotting vegetation was unbearable. People piled garbage, wrecked furniture, and debris in the streets. City workers removed 10,000 tons of trash daily from Villahermosa. More than 20,000 vehicles had to be junked.

The struggle toward recovery that lies ahead can be illustrated on a personal level through one man’s eyes. Before the flood, retiree Daniel Rincón used to survive by running a tiny corner store. But the flood wrecked his store, leaving a layer of stinking sludge from floor to ceiling.

“I have lost everything I had,” he says, fighting back tears. “All my stock has gone, and it wasn’t even mine. I bought it all on credit. Who’s going to help me now?”

President Felipe Calderón said he would make sure that no resources would be spared in getting Tabasco back on its feet. He pledged $670 million in federal money to start a reconstruction fund. In addition, the government is deferring tax payments, and local businesses received financial handouts to tide them over.

Calderón realized that sound crisis management would shore up his legitimacy. He was elected by a hairsbreadth over his leftist rival.            

Planning for Disasters

Mexico first began to take crisis management seriously after an earthquake devastated Mexico City more than 20 years ago. That earthquake, which measured 8.1 in magnitude, killed between 5,000 and 10,000 people—no precise death toll could be calculated.

“The 1985 earthquake was a tragedy that we were not prepared for. I helped dig children from the debris. People were working with their bare hands,” recalls Tom Gottlieb, CPP, president of Von Gosslar Consulting, and an ASIS International regional vice president.

“We have become much less amateurish in handling disasters since 1985. The earthquake was a great wake-up call for us,” says Jorge Septien, who is the head of security for Citibank in Mexico. “It helped to make security into a serious career for professionals.”

In the wake of that disaster, the armed forces drew up detailed national disaster recovery plans to ensure that for future incidents, there would be adequate emergency relief supplies, search and rescue teams, medical centers, earthmoving equipment, and troops to maintain law and order. The government also established a national coordinating committee to bring together federal agencies, the armed forces, utilities, health services, and private-sector representatives to coordinate responses to an emergency.

The government also required that banks resume operations as quickly as possible to get cash circulating and avoid looting or violence, as had happened in previous disasters. “People don’t think to bring their ATM cards or money with them when they are trying to save their families,” says Septien. “[P]eople who are honest had to steal food and water to survive, because they had no money. We wanted to avoid this happening again in Villahermosa.”

The sooner cash began coursing through the economy, the faster the state could start recovering from the disaster. State officials say 14 of the city’s 16 supermarkets were functioning normally again three weeks after the incident.

Lessons Learned

While the most recent response was a vast improvement over the way the government reacted in 1985, some first responders and businesses still point out problems with the way this disaster was handled.

One criticism is that the government did not respond quickly enough in terms of advance warnings and evacuations.

Rincón, like many in Villahermosa, says official warnings came too late and gave no indication that the flooding would be so severe.

A foreign official at the Red Cross International Federation says, “We could tell the situation was getting bad well before the government started warning people. We could get our warnings just by monitoring the NOAA Web site and watching the Weather Channel. There was no mystery or surprise about what would happen, that there would be a lot of flooding.”

A government enquiry found that six official alerts were given, the first on October 13, two weeks before flooding began. But few paid any attention. The federal water and electric utilities allowed water to rise to critical levels at the Peñitas dam despite the warnings.

The problem may be the way alerts were worded. “If one looks at the bulletins from the national meteorological service, they never said anything about the magnitude of the [forecasted] rains,” says Víctor Magaña Rueda, a researcher at Mexico’s National Autonomous University’s atmospheric sciences center. “By tradition, it errs on the safe side, using ranges that are very wide. Before Tabasco, it just warned people that it would rain a lot, giving a rainfall range of 70-400 millimeters.”

Another criticism concerned how slowly basic services were brought back online as the flooding eased. Private sector managers say they were let down by the poor performance of government-owned utilities and private telecommunications networks.

Companies had most of their IT infrastructure—PCs, monitors, servers, cabling, and telephone gear—destroyed by the floodwaters. When the waters receded, they were able to bring in replacement equipment and hook it up to corporate networks, but they could not get operations fully up and running until power and communications systems returned to normal.

One cellular carrier’s main transmission center in Villahermosa was almost completely submerged. Comisión Federal de Electricidad, the government-owned electric company, cut off supplies to the city for safety reasons. It only restored partial power days after the rain stopped and the waters began to recede. This hampered the ability of banks and other critical businesses to resume normal service.

The head of security at one Mexican company says, “Avantel, which is our cellphone carrier, and Telmex, which is the landline provider, were underwater, literally, and they could not provide service even once we were back and ready to operate. So what kind of contingency planning do they have?”

Poor communications made it hard to reach out to staff, says Juan Carlos Camacho Martínez, head of physical security and civil protection at Citibank in Mexico City. “The immediate priority was to locate our employees in Villahermosa. We needed to make sure everyone was okay, see who needed help, maybe to rescue them from their homes or to provide food and clothing.”

Not all the blame rests with the government or major utilities. Private companies other than banks had few plans in place. They had to improvise their responses and took longer to recover.

“The roads from Mexico City out to the Yucatán peninsula were cut for days, and we could not get through. We redirected our trucks through the south, which disrupted deliveries and increased delays,” says Jorge Uranga Valdez, corporate security coordinator at Mexican-owned logistics company Unipack. Fortunately, Villahermosa is not a major economic center, and Unipack only operates a distribution center and a warehouse in the city.

Carlos Pineda, a Unipack employee, says, “I’d say our emergency plan was pretty focused on preserving our IT systems but that was as far as it went. I’d say that apart from that, we basically made it up as we went along. We were improvising the whole time.”

It was especially important for Unipack to recover quickly, because it had a critical logistical role to play. It had to be ready to distribute some of the emergency supplies flowing in from Mexico City and the rest of the country. To that end, as soon as the roads were open, a group of Unipack workers was sent from Mexico City to help local employees. They rescued those who were cut off by the water or who needed help in obtaining basic supplies. Once their immediate needs were met and missing employees had been located, Unipack workers began cleaning up their offices and warehouse.

A clear lesson from the most recent incident was that companies need to audit their suppliers and service providers more carefully when they claim to be able to provide service rapidly after an emergency, says Walter M. Farrer, corporate security manager at 3M Mexico.

Citibank’s Camacho says it also now recognizes the need to better analyze what it will need to have on hand to handle a disaster. “We didn’t have any boats in Villahermosa. That seems obvious now. We have boats at other locations, but not in Villahermosa.”

A postcrisis analysis of lessons learned carried out for Hugo Raúl Montes Campos, the bank’s regional executive director for security, included the following recommendations: The bank should ensure that its Villahermosa branches be equipped with a launch, four-wheel drive vehicles, and individual first-aid kits for employees. The bank’s medical department should improve its emergency health support, such as providing immunizations for staff. The bank should also improve the resilience of its communications network as well, since its Villahermosa branches all relied on a single carrier.

A final recommendation was that the bank should strengthen relations with local and federal government emergency agencies, such as civil defense and the armed forces, to reduce response times in a crisis.

Many issues require government action. The Grijalva is one of Mexico’s most important rivers. Its hydroelectric dams generate about one quarter of the country’s electricity. Yet federal and state governments have invested little to protect residents from flooding or to enforce zoning regulations to prevent people from building in areas prone to flooding. Indeed, money earmarked after the 1999 floods to pay for flood protection programs either went missing or was misspent.

Raúl Fraga, who heads investigative reporting at Mexican business daily El Financiero, said, “Tabasco had a corrupt political system, although Granier is somewhat different from the others, and he was governor for barely a year when the flooding began. It’s very obvious that money from the federal government to prevent the effects of the flooding on the population has not been spent according to plan.”

Local environmentalists charge that the federal government did not fully implement a flood control plan that had been announced with great fanfare in 2000.

Elías Sánchez, a member of Asociación Ecológica Santo Tomás, says, “There were a series of meetings in which it was agreed to improve the security of the people. In 2003, a flood control plan was announced which would be implemented through 2007 with money from the federal government. But the money did not arrive in time, and the program was extended to 2008. The implementation of some projects was done badly, a few were done well, and others were not done at all.”

Many people are dreading what will happen as the handouts, goodwill, and tax breaks come to an end. “Mexicans are very emotional and respond generously in an emergency,” says Salvador Alcantara, CPP, a consultant based in Villahermosa.

But dealing with long-term recovery issues and preventing future disasters is another thing. “For instance, we need to have a policy that discourages people from building in high-risk areas, which does not really exist at the moment,” says Alcantara.

One resident who did not want to give his name said, “The problem is what comes after everyone has forgotten about Tabasco and all the things that happened to the people of Villahermosa. What will happen to us when the help ends? People are spending this money on surviving, and they cannot prepare for the time when there will be no more help. The owners of businesses will not be able to keep employees if no one is buying their products. And don’t forget that Tabasco is a poor state. We were poor before, and now we have become even poorer.”

The state government so far has indicated that it will stay the course, providing assistance until the area is back on its feet. Almost 22,000 small firms registered with the state for financial support, and officials have promised $430 million in soft loans to companies that qualify for aid. It has also promised $8 million in financial assistance for 10,000 local companies. Federal officials say they will invest in tourist promotion and to rebuild the state’s hotel and transportation infrastructure to kickstart the state economy. 

Ariel Cetina Bertruy, head of Invitab, the state government’s housing agency, told a Tabasco newspaper that he would rebuild 300,000 homes affected by floods at a cost of about $600 million.

The state government conducted a census in December to identify those most at risk, and it has started to relocate about 40,000 families away from areas most exposed to flooding. It also plans to purchase 600 hectares of private land in a safer area where homes can then be built to house the people being relocated. The first homes were meant to be ready in March 2008, but Alcantara says that by August work had not begun.

About 1,000 people were still living in shelters while others had built makeshift homes on the floodplains, areas at risk of further floods in the future.

Alcantara says private companies and the public sector must take crisis planning more seriously. For example, government agencies should improve early warning and communications capabilities. In addition, power and telecommunications providers need to improve the resilience of essential systems, and companies need to consider how vulnerable their supply chains and basic services are in an emergency.

John Barham is a senior editor at Security Management.