An army of volunteers sorted through donations of food, bottled water, clothes, and mattresses on the steps of the cathedral in Buenos Aires this morning, just one of many collections destined for the relief effort in La Plata, where floods on Wednesday killed 51 people.
La Plata, a city 35 miles from the Argentine capital, was seemingly defenseless against the record-breaking seven inches of rain that fell between Tuesday and Wednesday morning.
But the floods in Buenos Aires, which killed six people, could have been mitigated, critics say. The city flooded four times last year, including an instance in October when two people in the suburbs died and nearly 2,000 were evacuated. There were calls then for major developments to the city's flood prevention infrastructure. But a political culture of “short-termism” here means officials don’t act until tragedy strikes, says Leandro Bullor, an analyst at the University of Buenos Aires.
The federal and Buenos Aires city governments have long been at odds and the blame game over the floods began almost immediately.
Mauricio Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires and a vociferous opponent of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, criticized her administration for halting a $120 million World Bank loan to channel the Vega stream, one of three underground rivers in the capital. The national government must sign off on such loans.
That would have alleviated flooding in the neighborhood of Saavedra, one of the worst hit. “Everything is wrecked,” says barman Diego Olivera, whose home in the area was filled with six feet of water. “It’s inhabitable.”
Meanwhile, federal planning minister Julio De Vido condemned Mayor Macri for not preparing the city for the storm, which was forecast 48 hours in advance, according to the meteorological service. Supporters of President Kirchner often berate Macri for not taking charge of difficult situations.
“The city government’s bad management is a grave problem,” says Mr. Bullor.
According to local reports, it spent just 5 percent of the $45 million originally budgeted for flood prevention works in 2012. And despite last year’s floods, funding was cut by 90 percent in the 2013 budget, to around $5 million. In 2011, three planned flood prevention projects were not carried out, including channeling works in the south of Buenos Aires.
The city government has, though, successfully channeled the Maldonado underwater stream, and Macri announced last month it had started work on the Vega that will benefit around 300,000 homes.
Experts, however, say both Buenos Aires and La Plata suffered disproportionately because of chaotic growth. Pablo Romanazzi, head of the hydrology department at the University of La Plata, called into question the city's “irresponsible urbanization.”
Preparation for emergencies is also slack: A Buenos Aires city government official admitted last night it was “impossible” to organize the whole of the capital. And disaster response is too often overshadowed by the political bickering.
“With each new tragedy we forget about the last one,” Martín Lousteau, a former economy minister, wrote in La Nación newspaper. “And all we’re able to do is apportion responsibility to the other party.”