Atacama Desert flooded after 7 years of rain fell in just 12 hours


At least 10 people have been killed by catastrophic floods in northern regions of Chile after thunderstorms brought the equivalent of 7 years of rain in just 12 hours on March 26. Search and rescue operations are still in progress and authorities fear the number of casualties will rise. Flooding has affected the regions of Atacama, Antofagasta and Coquimbo, all located in the Atacama Desert, one of the driest regions of the world.

Heavy rainfall and consequent river overflow, flash floods and landslides knocked out power and communication lines, destroyed infrastructure and made roadways impassable. 

A state of emergency is in effect since March 26 for the Atacama Region and the Antofagasta municipality. The Health Ministry has declared a Sanitary Alert in Copiapó, Tierra Amarilla, Diego de Almagro and Alto del Carmen.

Chile's Deputy Interior Minister Mahmud Aleuy called the flooding "the worst rain disaster to fall on the north in 80 years." 

The Atacama Desert is an extremely arid region and has been for millions of years, Weather.com senior meteorologist Nick Wiltgen explains. "As a result, the terrain is hard and rocky because rainfall isn't frequent or abundant enough for either weathering rocks into sand or supporting the kind of ecosystem that would help turn rocks and minerals into soil. Without soil and plant cover to help absorb rainfall, it just runs off instantly as torrents of water."

Between Thursday and Friday about 24 mm fell on the city of Antofagasta, an area that typically receives about 1.7 mm of rain in a year, according to the Chilean meteorological service.

Southern Peru was also affected by recent heavy rain. Intense rainfall in Chosica caused deadly mudslide on March 23 which left 8 fatalities, 6 missing and 25 people injured. In addition, 153 houses have collapsed as a result of this event.

"We're living an extremely difficult situation," Chile's president Michelle Bachelet said. "The previous forecast was that there was a huge drought here, so the rains were not necessarily seen as a catastrophe. Foreseeing was really difficult because no one knew."

As of March 28, a total of 10 persons died. In addition, 19 persons were reported missing and at least 6 638 were hosted in evacuation centers.

According to ONEMI, approximately 50 000 persons remain without drinking water in the whole affected area (including the region of Coquimbo) and 18 000 without electricity. Some hospitals mainly in the Antofagasta region have been severely impacted and are not yet fully operational.

The national civil protection along with the armed forces are currently engaging in operations to access the remaining isolated persons, deliver humanitarian aid, move the livestock and to clear roads, ECHO reports.

Red alerts are still in effect for parts of the Atacama and Antofagasta.

Meanwhile, the southern regions of Chile are experiencing severe droughts and devastating wildfires which already burned nearly 93 000 hectares this season. This is far above the annual average of 59 300 over the previous five years.

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