Image: Flooded town
Christian Escobar Mora  /  AP
Floodwaters swamp buildings, land and part of a road in Palmira, Colombia, on Dec. 1.
updated 12/10/2010 12:17:50 PM ET 2010-12-10T17:17:50

Normally, it takes truck driver Marco Parra less than a day to load and haul 20 tons of spinach across Bogota's savannah to the capital's Corabastos wholesale market.

This week, it took four days to make the 75-mile trip.

"Everything is flooded. There's no way to get through," Parra lamented as his cargo was unloaded.

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Colombia is suffering its worst rains in 42 years of record-keeping — deluges that have left thousands of homes under water, damaged thousands of acres of crops and blocked numerous highways with landslides.

And then there is the human cost. By Thursday, rescuers had recovered 55 bodies — nearly half of them children — from a poor, hillside neighborhood in the Medellin suburb of Bello, which disappeared four days earlier under tons of sodden earth. More than 60 remained missing.

The National Office of Disaster Relief says that more than 200 have died in floods and landslides this year — not counting the disaster in Bello, located about 170 miles northwest of the capital, Bogota.

"The damage is incalculable," President Juan Manuel Santos told Colombians as he declared a national emergency Tuesday.

The government has spent more than $265 million this year to address problems associated with the rains and is committed to spending more than $530 million more, Santos said.

In addition, the United States, the European Union, North Korea and Switzerland are among public and private donors that have pledged more than $21 million thus far to a government-created relief committee.

But that isn't nearly enough.

"The government is talking about a billion (Colombian pesos) here, another billion there," said Alejandro Gaviria, chairman of the economics department of Bogota's Universidad de los Andes. "Surely those estimates are going to fall short. Where is the government going to get the money?"

Among the consequences of this year's unusually heavy rains:

  • Nearly a quarter of Colombia's 80,000 miles of paved highways have been flooded, ruptured or blocked by falling earth and rocks, said Carlos Rosado, director of the National Highway Institute.
  • More than 41,000 of the nation's 25 million cattle drowned or went missing in landslides, said Jose Felix Lafaurie, president of the Colombian Cattlemen's Federation.
  • Nearly 272,000 of Colombia's nearly 12 million acres of planted crops are flooded, another 210,000 acres partially. More than 496,000 tons of crops, or about 1.3 percent of overall production, have been lost, at a cost of about $450 million said, Rafael Mejia, president of Colombia's farmer's society.
  • Rice producers calculate they've lost more than 49,400 of their 1.1 million acres of land under cultivation, while sugar producers have lost about 49,400 of their nearly 514,000 acres.

Due to the constant moisture, more than half of Colombia's coffee crop has been infected with a fungus called coffee rust, which attacks the plant's leaves with yellow-orange powdery lesions.

Whether the intense rains were provoked by global climate change is not clear, said Orlando Rangel, a climatologist at the National University.

Scientists do agree that the persistent precipitation is related to La Nina phenomenon, an unleashing of moisture caused by cold Pacific currents.

The national meteorological institute notes that La Nina arrived officially on June 24. It says cities on the Caribbean coast that experience an average rainfall of 1.9 inches in November received five times that amount last month.

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Bogota, in the central highlands, received more than double its November average of 3.5 inches.

Rangel says that one of the reasons the rain has had such devastating consequences in Colombia this year is because the government has neglected to build dikes along vulnerable riverbanks.

Colombia didn't create a warning system for volcano eruptions until after Nevado del Ruiz erupted in 1985, burying about 25,000 people in a huge river of mud as it wiped out the town of Armero, Rangel noted.

"That's how we learn," he said. "With the rains, when will we learn? It's time we got serious."

Parra, who has been a truck driver for 25 years, doesn't need to hear the official statistics on rainfall to know how bad it's been this year.

"In all my years driving a truck, this has been the wettest," he said. Nonetheless, he added, with a fatalistic smile, "You've got to have patience and bear it out. We're not going to die of hunger."

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