January 14, 2005

A city devastated by the storms: a visit to the temporary shelters in Tijuana

Photos and text by Luis Alonso Pérez

Recent storms have caused severe destruction in the streets of Tijuana, especially in the poorest districts in town. Slanted areas where fiercely beaten by mudslides dragging rocks and garbage. Unpaved streets turned into giant mud puddles.

Last Sunday, 50 year old Blanca Murillo was taking cover from the rain inside her house in Colonia Morelos, when her neighbor started yelling, telling her to get out of her house because the wooden walls where about to fall down. The only thing she had time to take was a suitcase full of clothes she had already prepared just in case, because she had already lost her home in past rain seasons.

The walls started falling and Blanca was able to get out just in time. As she was walking out she slipped and fell into the mud. When she was standing up she witnessed the water flow tear down her humble wooden home. Moments later a police car took her to one of the four temporary shelters in Tijuana.

Since the last days of December, members of the local police and fire departments have been patrolling the city to evacuate people living in the areas most affected by flooding or mudslides. Some people followed their advice and where transported to the shelters, but many people refused to leave their homes.

Eva Chavez and her family left their home and went to one of the shelters at the first warning from the Civil Protection Department. Rain and mud-slides tore down a wall and flooded their home. The strong winds flew off the pieces of second hand triply wood her husband, Leonel Ramos, had put together as a roof. “Some people refused to leave when they were evacuating because they fear their things could get stolen –said Eva– but things are the least of our worries, for us they are the most important thing” she affirmed as she glanced at her daughter playing with a group of children in the Municipal Gym shelter.

During the day the shelter looks like a schoolyard during recess. Dozens of kids play with each other while their mothers clean the small spaces divided by metal handrails. They arrange the mattresses they sleep in and put together the few personal things they where able to rescue. Most of the children’s fathers where out working or back in their neighborhoods repairing and keeping an eye on their houses, but Leonel Ramos can’t be out making a living. He and his wife work in a street swap meet selling used clothes; bad weather makes street commerce almost impossible.

For now Eva and Leonel can only wait for the rain to calm down and hope they can build their home in the same place, because they are occupying a piece of land that doesn’t belong to them. “We can’t go back to our houses, not even go back to our blocks because they are all full of mud” said Eva.

Berta Flores and 30 other families from Colonia Camino Verde are staying in a shelter because they lost their homes in just a few hours. The mud-slides and water flow made large pieces of land sink spontaneously, 30 homes fell into a large crack and where completely destroyed. Local authorities have talked to the neighbors so they can be relocated, but Berta and a few of her neighbors are the owners of the land their homes where built in, so a relocation will affect them tremendously.

For many women in the shelters rebuilding their homes and the complications of being relocated are problems that don’t have a solution for now. Meanwhile they are more worried in finding a place to sleep in if the temporary shelters close down. They have lost everything they owned, the few clothes, furniture and tools they need for their most basic every day chores. “We don’t have anything, not even a pan to cook in” said Berta with a deep sadness in her voice.

Many families in the shelters depend only on the mother’s paycheck. Most mothers have to provide for their families earning the minimum salary (around 150 dollars a month) or with the money their husbands sends from the United States (around 200 dollars a month). Low salaries and the constant arrival of hundreds of people to Tijuana every month have caused a severe housing crisis, and make people consider building their homes in dangerous areas as their only choice.

The families staying in shelters can only wait for the storms to pass so they can repair their communities or build from the ground up. Many people like Blanca Murillo have to start from the beginning “Ni modo, we have to go back and begin once again. If we can’t do it in the same place, then we will find another, there is no other choice”.

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