Hurricane Otto Hits Close to Home

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Hello, Friends, normally our messages are enthusiastic and carefree as is fitting of our very lucky lives here. This one, while still thankful and enthusiastic, is a bit more somber.

Many of you followed the development and progress of Hurricane Otto, (the first substantial hurricane threat Costa Rica has seen in over 150 years,) and contacted us to express your concern. We’re very grateful for your messages and want to assure all of you, our Friends, that La Fortuna was left completely untouched by Otto; in fact the rain fall during the hurricane was less than that of a typical rainy day during the wet season here!

As Otto hammered Panama with death and mayhem before moving north to do the same to Limon here in C.R., public notices were sent out, dams were opened to drain resevoirs, storm drains were cleared, all schools and public offices were closed and the government set up checkpoints to stop casual traffic and to keep roads clear for emergency response vehicles.

On Thursday, November 24 in La Fortuna the streets were quiet as most businesses closed their doors for the day and people gathered with their loved while preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. The stores were stripped of staples such as rice and beans, ground beef, cooking oil, bottled water, bagged charcoal and anything else that would allow families to provision themselves in the very likely event that the failure of electrical power would lead to a cascade of other public service failures, leaving families to fend for themselves until power could be restored.

As it turns out, there were two big surprises on Thursday and Friday:

One, Otto abruptly changed course to the north leaving La Fortuna mostly untouched.

Two: It turns out that tiny Costa Rica has a truly outstanding, dedicated team of knowledgeable, experienced and dedicated public service when it comes to natural disaster management and mitigation. (This makes perfect sense given the number of active volcanoes, the hundreds of inches of rainfall per year and other challenges from Mother Nature which while making the tiny country one of the most geologically and biologically important, (not to mention beautiful and captivating!) areas on Earth.)

We here at CDCR made our evacuation plans, charged backup batteries and bought cellular/satellite Internet accounts in order to stay in touch with guests if the power went out and the phone lines died. By 8pm Friday the rain had stopped and it became evident that true to its name La Fortuna had indeed been “Fortunate” as the hurricane made an abrupt turn to the North before essentially stalling and burning itself out while hammering several northern CR towns and devastating large areas of southern Nicaragua.

Yay us!

Other parts of the country got hurt badly, experiencing high winds, falling trees and flash flooding. To the Northwest of La Fortuna on Nicaraguan border an area named Upala experienced extreme flooding as a small reservoir which had been forgotten and not drained prior to the storm overflowed and then failed completely, suddenly turning the small river below it into a deadly torrent. Within minutes houses were underwater or just gone and residents were swept away as the deadly torrent suddenly rampaged through the streets in the middle of the night.

The news of fatalities and destruction were both unexpected and heartbreaking. However in the midst of that terrible, terrifying, pitch black trauma one amazing story of hope and determination played out: And it involved people who are very close to our own hearts. A member of our own Casa de Costa Rica family here in La Fortuna is a single mother and also an incredibly dedicated psychologist and, as she puts it, “Servant of the people.” She normally drives an hour each way every day to go and work in Upala, because there is a large need for her services in that community. As a Doctor and a health professional with standing in Upala, she was tasked with staying there during the hurricane to provide counseling and other basic medical triage and assistance as, when or if needed. Here’s where her family’s story takes an incredible turn.

Since Otto had been initially projected to track directly through La Fortuna, she decided to take her children with her to Upala as she felt that they would be safer there. However at around midnight she heard rushing water, looked out the window of the room which she’d been provided with and saw racing water rapidly filling the street in front of her!

She leapt up and raced to pull her kids from their beds, dragging them out into the violent storm of screaming wind and punishing, stinging rainfall. In just the few seconds that it took to pull her kids from bed and drag them screaming and terrified to the door, the water had already risen enough to nearly knock her down when she opened the door. She had to step DOWN into that flood, dragging her shocked, rigid children with her and as she put it, “swim” to higher ground.

In reality, she forced herself and her kids uphill on the road the house they’d been quartered at was on, struggling against the flow of the flash flood and hoping that she’d clear the water before her strength failed and made her lose her grip on her children. For a while the water rose as fast or faster than she did, but in the end she made it to safety with both of her children. If she’d been literally one minute later in her actions, then she wouldn’t have and we’d be mourning her today.

Unlike several other families who simply vanished in Upala two nights ago we’re very happy and privileged and relieved to say, to YELL actually! that she and her lovely family are still with us; still part of our family as much as we’re part of theirs.

The morning of the 25th after the hurricane had passed, streets across the country were flooded in a different way; with people dropping off donations to The Red Cross for the families affected by the hurricane. Below is an excerpt from a Tico Times article regarding donations:

“The Red Cross, along with CNE, will begin collecting donations Friday for those affected by the storm. In-kind and monetary donations can be made until Sunday at a location set up in Barrio Naciones Unidas, 200 meters south of Colegio Semanario […] The location will be marked with Red Cross flags and banners.

Acceptable items to donate are: canned goods; grains (rice, sugar, beans); pastas; soups; bottled water […] There are also ways to make direct monetary donations from your bank to accounts set up by the Red Cross, which you can find on the organization’s Facebook page. […]” – The article continues with information about several other ways to contribute to relief efforts.

We’re obviously very fortunate to have been missed by hurricane Otto here in La Fortuna and we want to do whatever we can to help those who were not so lucky. We’ve made our own donations of cash and clothing and other tangible items to the relief effort in addition to our regular donation of 10% of our gross profits to local children’s charities. However we would like to encourage those who want to donate from a distance to consider concentrating on cash contributions as ultimately a dollar can buy four times as many beans when spent by an approved, recognized and trusted relief agency here on the ground as it can when it is spent by even the most well intended soul far away.

So for those who’d like to contribute to relief efforts, we encourage you NOT to reduce the value of your dollars by purchasing rice and beans yourselves, then wasting even more money by paying to ship them here. Instead we encourage you to INSTANTLY add your assistance by sending it to reputable relief workers who can ensure that it goes where it is most needed and will do the most good. We’re happy to do what we can via our local presence and contacts to assist anyone who asks for our help in this regard, for anyone who is concerned about making sure that their help gets directly to those who need it instead of being sucked up in “administrative fees etc.”0

To all of our incoming guests, please don’t worry, everything here is absolutely and utterly fine. We’re looking forward to meeting and hosting you soon.

Thank you again to all of our friends who inquired about our safety. We’re un-rattled and we’re hoping that it will be another 170 years until another hurricane shows up in Costa Rica, just like it was before Otto!

Finally, thanks again to all of those who have offered to help. We’re privileged to have such wonderful friends, family, partners and guests. Yes, our next posts may well be about the return of Toucans to the perfume tree outside of my, (William’s,) office window, or about the resident sloth at the Emerald Estate having given birth to a delightful “mini-sloth/hitchhiker” as I refer to the adorable little things.

However today we really are reaching out to those who need help and giving thanks to everyone else who is doing the same.

Muchas Gracias, y Pura Vida! 🙂