VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico – Tens of thousands of people have abandoned their homes across southern Mexico to escape flooding from weeks of torrential rains, and forecasts are predicting even more rainfall.
The situation worsened for some areas Tuesday when authorities began releasing 2,000 cubic meters (71,000 cubic feet) of water every second from four dams whose reservoirs were filled to capacity. The surge caused several rivers to overflow.
The flooding has affected all four of Mexico’s southernmost states: Tabasco, Veracruz, Chiapas and Oaxaca. But despite the dangers, government pleas to evacuate were ignored by many people, who are accustomed to severe flooding every year.
Tens of thousands are sleeping on the roofs of their homes, refusing to abandon their possessions despite the rapid rise of rivers.
Hipolito Hernandez hauled many of his belongings onto his roof as the Rio Carrizal washed over its banks and flooded dozens of homes in the farming community of Sauces in the Gulf coast state of Tabasco.
Hernandez, 38, gave some of his possessions to relatives who went to shelters but he stayed put. In 2007, he lost everything when he left his home during flooding that submerged 1 million homes and killed 33 people.
“We are waiting to see what happens, we can still withstand this flood,” Hernandez said
In Tabasco state, the homes of more than 124,000 people have been severely flooded. More than 187,000 hectares (462,000 acres) of crops belonging to 20,000 people have been lost.
But only 2,000 people in the state are in shelters.
“They are refusing to leave their homes and they don’t want to go to shelters because they have a culture of living with water,” Tabasco Gov. Andres Granier said during a meeting with President Felipe Calderon, who flew over the affected areas Tuesday and walked through some flooded towns.
Granier warned Calderon that the situation could become even worse than in 2007 because record rainfall is expected.
“What worries me is that the worst is yet to come for Tabasco,” Granier said. “The state and these people cannot keep suffering these problems each year, or live in permanent uncertainty.”
Authorities said the region has already received twice the amount of rainfall that normally falls during the season, which does not officially end until November.
The government has dug relief ditches and taken other flood-control measures in recent years to ease the annual flooding in southern Mexico. Calderon acknowledged more needs to be done, but said the flooding would be much worse this year without the government’s advances.
He pointed to emergency levees made of concrete and dirt that so far have protected the state capital, Villahermosa, from the swollen Grijalva. Even with the barriers, a few outlying neighborhoods were severely flooded.
In neighboring Veracruz state, floods have forced 200,000 people from their homes in recent weeks, although some have started returning.
“They evacuated us when the water was up to our waists, but the water had already broken all the doors of our house,” said Angelica Martinez Galindo, the mother of a 3-year-old girl who had to flee Tlacotalpan, a colonial town in Veracruz state that UNESCO named a World Heritage site.
She said at least 20 men stayed behind in her neighborhood to try to salvage possessions.
Clara Luz Montalvo said she resisted leaving her home in El Juchil because her 82-year-old mother didn’t want to move. When they finally were forced to flee, they were nearly swept away by rushing water and had to be rescued by marines on a boat.
“It was a very serious situation. My mother can hardly walk and I have a sister who is disabled. I don’t know what I would have done if it hadn’t been for the government, the marines,” Montalvo said while waiting her turn in a food line at a shelter in Veracruz city.