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Severe Weather and Natural Disasters Test Central, South America and Emergency Response

In recent days, there have been several weather-related news headlines mentioning Latin America and the Caribbean.

There has been constant talk of floods, landslides, active volcanoes spewing ash and sometimes strong landslides and avalanches, among other situations that have occurred recently in the region.

This includes Mexico and several countries in Central America and the Caribbean, as well as from Colombia to Chile and Argentina in South America.

Many people are uneasy about increasing incidents and wonder why they have been happening so frequently. The natural disasters are linked in part to El Niño, although many of these events have records and a historical pattern in which similar situations have arisen over time.

The difference is that it is more likely that many of these natural events can be quickly known and some of them in real time.

Social networks have been partly responsible for quickly spreading news of natural events, and people who live in the affected areas have been able to show the world what is happening in their surroundings.

According to Eric Leister, an AccuWeather meteorologist, "Typically the months of December through March are the driest time of the year for much of Central America and northern South America. Normal rainfall increases some during April, especially late in the month and then increases more dramatically from May into the summer months."

"Since the El Niño pattern is only just beginning to take shape, it is likely too early for there to be any significant impacts driven by this phenomenon, so the normal turn to more active weather is likely the biggest factor," Leister said.

Economic Growth and the Ability to Respond to Emergencies by Severe Weather

In an opinion article published by the New York Times in March this year, the journalist Ernesto Londoño mentioned as the economy grew slightly in Latin America and the Caribbean between 2003 and 2012, allowing more than 70 million people to climb above the poverty line, but there are still more than 130 million who have to survive on less than $4 a day.

Also he mentioned that a World Bank report, released the second week of March this year, recorded that the slowdown in the economy has slowed the closing of the poverty gap.

After a period of growth that stands out in several decades, one in five people in Latin America remain chronically poor. The percentages of gross domestic product changed from six percent in 2010 to only an estimated 0.8 of a percent in 2014.

To the extent that economic growth slows in the region, the budgets of the countries are also affected and this reduces the resources for prevention of possible natural disasters due to severe weather. This makes it far more difficult for countries of the Latin American region to develop plans in the medium and long term, making them vulnerable in their responsiveness.

Colombia and the Recent Tragedy in Salgar, Realities that Come to the Surface by the Lack of Economic Resources

At dawn on May 18 this year, Salgar, a town located southwest of the department of Antioquia in Colombia, lived through the nightmare of a huge avalanche that killed more than 93 people and left hundreds homeless.

The vulnerability of this town of coffee growers was evident when heavy rainfall in the upper basin of the creek, known as the Liboriana, made its flow rate grow very quickly. The floodwaters completely destroyed everything in the basin.

About the weather phenomenon that occurred at Salgar on that Monday, Leister said, "Heavy rains responsible for the mudslide are not uncommon for this time of year in Colombia; however, pinpointing exactly where thunderstorms will hit on any given day is difficult."

"The best way to approach this is to warn people about the threat of thunderstorms and heavy rain before arriving this time of year, so they are better prepared for when this happens," Leister said.

In a recent interview with the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, the mayor of Salgar, Olga Eugenia Osorio, admitted that the population was warned that a situation like this could come to pass. She has been questioned since its administration conducted a hydrographic survey, which mentioned that the risk of a tragedy, such as the May 18 disaster, was evident.

Osorio told the newspaper about a development plan to take preventative measures for natural disasters, which was approved in 2012. She described what actions the municipality was able to implement and what actions could not be taken because the municipality lacked the necessary resources.

The municipality has been able to focus on cleaning the basins and monitoring streams. However, the necessary infrastructure actions could not be executed due to lack of immediate resources.

The plans registered potential risks and the actions that were required for prevention, but it is not easy if there are no resources, Osorio said.

She also added that 80 percent of Colombian municipalities do not have the resources to invest in risks, according to the Administrative Department of Disaster Prevention (Dapard) and the National Risk Management Unit.

The Dapard is responsible for monitoring and early warning of weather events. In the case of the Salgar disaster, the Dapard issued an orange alert, warning of the probability of heavy rain. The institution did not predict that devastating flooding would occur, Osorio said to the Colombian newspaper.

Now, the Colombia government will accelerate the process of helping to reduce risks and relocate as many people and warn the entire urban area of Salgar when it is in danger.

How Will El Niño Impact the Seasonal Forecast?

Regarding to the Latin America weather forecast Leister said, "As the phenomenon of El Niño increases this summer, drier-than-normal weather is expected from Mexico through Central America and in northern South America, especially in northern Colombia and Venezuela to northern Brazil."

"There will still be rain and thunderstorms during the summer; however, rainfall amounts will generally be less than normal, especially in July and August," Leister added.

Check back with on developing weather stories in Latin America, and follow Eric Leister's International Weather blog. AccuWeather's full winter forecast for South America will be released in early June.