Friday, January 09, 2009

Earthquakes and Dam Breaks in Costa Rica

I consider yesterday one of the luckier days of my life. Had any small part of the day gone different I might not be alive right now.

I arrived into Costa Rica on Monday and spent the past four days guiding a group of NOC guests down various sections of the Sarapique river. Yesterday we had talked about putting on the highest section on the river, the San Miguel section. This is (or now was) a really fun section of steep class 4 water in a fairly remote section of the Sarapique. After discussing it with my clients, some of us ended up deciding to put in a little lower at a farm just a couple miles above the La Virgen bridge to give them a little more of a warm up before possibly returning to the San Miguel section the next day.

Part I: The Earthquake

We had a great morning on the water and eventually got down to Superman rapid, where the rest of our group was waiting to put on. While part of the group stood on the side of the river and watched, my guests and I ran through the rapid. One of my guests swam at the bottom and while I was recovering the boat from the river left wall, I heard a large noise, like a train rumbling. Before I could even reflect on what the cause of the noise was, basketball sized boulders began falling in only feet from my boat. I paddled away from the wall as fast as I could while the guests on the bank scrambled up to higher ground. Thankfully I got away from the falling boulders before any of them hit me.

Part II: The Broken Dam

After the earthquake stopped we all took a second to reflect on the event. We were all thankful that no one was hurt and after having a few snacks at the van, decided to continue on with our plans to head down river. We all got into our boats and were doing some ferries back and forth across the river before deciding we should get a move on. Just as we began floating downstream some men came running down the riverbank yelling at us. I paddled over to one of the men who quickly told me that the dam was broken due to the earthquake and that we needed to get out of the water very quickly. As we carried our boats up the road away from the river we could hear the water roaring behind us and getting louder every step. There were police and emergency vehicles driving up and down the road announcing on the megaphone that everyone needed to get as far away from the river as possible. We eventually made it up the road a good ways from the river and felt relieved to have been waved off of the river just in time. We suspect that the wall of water arrived about 10 minutes after we got off.

Part III: A View of the Destruction

After an evening of watching the news and hearing from others about the destruction that took place upstream of where we took out, we decided to go check it out this morning. What we found was quite unbelievable. First we stopped at the bridge at La Virgen and found that the rapids that we paddled just yesterday morning were gone. If you are familiar with the Sarapique, you'd remember an island with a large tree in the middle of the river looking upstream from the La Virgen bridge- that is completely gone now and all that is left is silt and debris. That is pretty much the case as far as you can see looking upstream and downstream of the La Virgen bridge.

Next we drove up to check out the put in to the San Miguel section of the river- the section that we had considered paddling yesterday. The destruction there was even more difficult to believe. The bridge that once spanned the river at the put-in is completely gone. We had been told that when the wall of water from the dam arrived at the San Miguel section it was approximately 40 feet tall. This was confirmed today when I saw first-hand the high water mark 45 feet above river level at that section. I am sad to say that the San Miguel section of the Sarapique officially no longer exists and it will probably take many many years before it is in any kind of shape to be paddled.

I am extremely thankful that everything worked out as it did yesterday and that no one was seriously injured due to the dam breaking (though there have been at least 9 causalities as a result of the earthquake). Had my group put on the San Miguel section yesterday, or had we not been waved off the river when we were, there is simply no way we would have survived.

Below you will find some pictures I took of the river this morning. I also included one picture of the river taken a couple years ago to add some perspective.

Looking upstream from the La Virgen bridge

Looking downstream from the La Virgen bridge

This used to be the San Miguel bridge

Another view of where the San Miguel bridge used to be (check out the trees piled up at the road)

Looking upstream from where the San Miguel bridge used to be

Looking downstream of where the San Miguel bridge used to be

Another view of the put-in rapid on the San Miguel section of the Sarapique

A view of the put-in rapid of the San Miguel section taken in 2006

A crack in the road resulting from the earthquake in the town of San Miguel

Me straddling the crack

Also check out this news video that has some good river footage:

I have another group of kayaking guests arriving in tomorrow and I can only imagine what the next week here in Costa Rica might bring. While I do not believe there is any way we will be able to paddle any section of the Sarapique, we're still planning to have a great week on the rest of Costa Rica's amazing rivers. We will be heading through the Sarapique area however and I will try to take some more pictures to give a better idea of how well the river is repairing itself. Until then, Pura Vida!


david_chapman99 said...

I am glad you are okay. I used to guide there about 10 years ago. is the sarapiqui outdoor Center okay? do you know if these friends of mine from the rafting community in La Virgen are safe: Chole/Pablo, Erik from Rancho Leona, Pirulu, and Chandy Vega?


David Chapman

Kevin S said...

Glad you and the guests are OK … what an amazing experience. I’ve posted some of photos from my 2005 NOC trip. I’ve got a shot of the island with the tree.

Sarapiqui 2005

John Burton said...

Laura-Yikes! What an adventure! We're all glad you and your team are OK. Have fun--and beware of loud rumbles! John

Anonymous said...

Hey, don't know if you've seen this, but it's the flood coming downstream. I don't know where this is in realtion to where you were, but it's pretty wild...

margarito said...

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