Hurricane Liza devastates La Paz
Oct. 2, 1976: Area of La Paz shantytown flattened by wall of water and mud during Hurricane Liza.
Around midnight on Sept. 30, 1976, Category 4 Hurricane Liza slammed into La Paz in Baja California Sur, Mexico.
Staff writer Patt Morrison reported in the Oct. 3, 1976, Los Angeles Times:
LA PAZ, Mex.––Only 24 hours after Hurricane Liza stormed through the dirt streets of the city, La Paz was burying its dead and beginning to rebuild itself.
By Saturday, rescue crews digging under mud-buried cars and rain-torn shacks had found hundreds of bodies, bringing the death toll to more than 650, and one government official said he feared it would rise to 1,000.
Saturday, La Paz was a city without adequate fresh water or gasoline, without electricity or telephones, and the first wave of relief–medicines, food, shelters–had still not shaken the city out of its shock.
The floodwater that tore through three of the Baja California city’s poor communities near midnight Thursday wiped out entire neighborhoods of flimsy cardboard, palm fond and tarpaper shacks, built in a wide, dry riverbed that had not run for years, below a low earthen dam that had withstood the weather before.
But the estimated 6 inches of rainfall that rolled off hillsides and made rivers where there had been none broke through the Porvenir (“future”) dam and swept through the shantytown, leaving thousands homeless and obliterating any trace of the settlement…
More than 400 died in La Paz, and 20,000 were left homeless. Hurricane Liza is considered the worse natural disaster to hit Baja California Sur.
These three photos by retired staff photographer John Malmin were published Oct. 3, 1976. The photo above was Page 1 lead art.
Oct. 2, 1976: Car rests on top of second in aftermath of Hurricane Liza that lashed La Paz, Mexico. Credit: John Malmin / Los Angeles Times
Oct. 2, 1976: Young man hangs his head in La Paz street outside federal housing project that was extensively damaged by Hurricane Liza. Credit: John Malmin / Los Angeles Times
El Ciclón Liza enlutó miles de hogares en La Paz B.C.S. . . . . . . . . . . el dia 30 de Septiembre de 1976 hace 38 años
El ciclón Liza enlutó miles de hogares en La Paz Baja California Sur en 1976.
La noche del 30 de septiembre de 1976 el ciclón Liza de categoría 4 golpeó a La Paz, hubiera sido un ciclón mas pero el gobierno estatal había mal construido una represa que llevaba el nombre del “Cajoncito” que no soportó el caudal y literalmente reventó, muchas familias recién llegadas habían asentado sus viviendas en los cursos de los arroyos secos, “El Cajoncito” fue uno de esos lechos de arroyos que fueron poblados por razones políticas, el arroyo entra a la ciudad por un costado del cerro Atravesado justo donde termina la calle 5 de Mayo y atraviesa toda la zona nueva de camino al mar, pasa al costado del centro comercial ubicado en Forjadores y Colosio, mismo centro donde están ubicados los cines, se dice que cuando estaban excavando para construir ese centro comercial aparecieron muchos esqueletos que pertenecían a desaparecidos de cuando se desbordó el arroyo.
En su tiempo el gobierno estatal reconoció 500 y pico de muertes cifra que mas o menos coincide con el número de cadáveres que fueron identificados, los muertos fueron llevados al viejo estadio de béisbol para su identificación y después fueron sepultados en inmensas fosas comunes al fondo del panteón de los sanjuanes. Solo algunos pocos descansan en tumbas familiares.
La imagen muestra algo que parece ser una jardinera, no se engañe es una fosa común de las seis que existen y cada una mide aproximadamente 100 metros de largo, ahí descansan los restos de las víctimas que pudieron recibir cristiana sepultura . . . muchos quedaron sepultados por el lodo a lo largo del arroyo y otros muchos fueron a dar al mar, algunos fueron sacados con redes de la bahia, otros de entre los manglares de Paz, hasta se llego a comentar que algunos llegaron hasta las islas cercanas y aun en este tiempo han encontrado algunos en las nuevas construcciones que se han estado haciendo en las partes cercanas a donde llego el cause del arroyo.
Nunca se sabrá cuántas personas fallecieron la noche del 30 de septiembre de 1976. El periodista e investigador Elino Villanueva González en su libro “El Ciclón Liza” editado por la UABCS cita entre 2,000 y 5,000 el número de víctimas.
COLONIA INFONAVIT DONDE QUEDARON
MUCHOS CUERPOS ENTRE LOS ESCOBROS
EL AGUA NO RESPETO LAS CASAS
BIEN CONSTRUIDAS MUCHO MENOS
A LAS CASAS DE CARTON Y MADERA.
COL. INFONAVIT EN 1976 DESPUES
DEL CICLON LIZA
DENTRO DE ESTA CAMIONETA
SE ENCONTRO A UNA FAMILIA COMPLETA
JOVEN DE 16 AÑOS ENCONTRADO ENTRE LAS RAMAS,
Y ESCOMBROS ARRASTRADOS POR LA CORRIENTE
JOVEN SORPRENDIDA DENTRO DE SU CASA
MUJER EMBARAZADA QUE MURIO DENTRO DE CASA
PERRO LLORA A SU AMO MUERTO
MIEMBROS DEL EJERCITO MEXICANO
AUTOS ARRASTRADOS POR LA CORRIENTE
EL ARROYO DEL CAJONCITO CAUSANTE DE ESTA
TRAGEDIA Y DEL BORDO MAL CONSTRUIDO
LEA MI HISTORIA
“YO SOBREVIVI AL CICLON LIZA”
LOS PAISES DEL MUNDO APOYARON EN GRAN MANERA A
Sep 30th is the 37th Anniversary of the Arrival of Hurricane Liza; the Worse Day In La Paz History
Sep 30th is the 37th Anniversary of the Arrival of Hurricane Liza; the Worse Day In La Paz History
September 30th, 1976 began like most other late summer days in La Paz, hot and humid— though perhaps a bit more overcast than usual. The port was abuzz with the news that a tropical cyclone was in the vicinity, but most Paceños didn’t get overly concerned about such reports since more often than not these disturbances passed harmlessly by. Besides, Hurricane Liza—if it came at all—wasn’t scheduled to brush past the city until the pre-dawn hours of the following morning. The city’s schools convened classes on schedule as the rest of the town’s people went about their normal Thursday morning routine. The state governor was so unconcerned about the weather that he boarded an early plane for Mexicali to attend a political function being hosted later that morning in the capital of the northern half of the peninsula.
But by 10:30 a steady drizzle blanketed the city and the wind picked up. People began scurrying home to get out of the weather. As three o’clock rolled around the skies were dark and menacing as howling gusts accompanied a relentless downpour soaking the region. By 7 p.m. it was apparent to most of the city’s residents that this storm was different from most. Liza had brought some serious hydraulic action with her. Streets that had once been arroyos became raging rivers as the torrential rains made their way through the city to the Bay of La Paz. Even the oldest Paceños couldn’t remember ever having seen the water rise as high as it did that September evening. Homes near arroyos throughout town flooded for the first time and vehicles were swept away when their drivers challenged the currents.
Then things got really bad.
Sometime between 8 and 9 p.m., a loud crackling sound was heard throughout the city. Most residents I talked to described it as sounding like a loud explosion. One person said it reminded him of when they blasted the road through to Pichilingue in the early 1960s. The sound was caused by the rupturing of a dike meant to protect the city’s eastern flank from the periodic floodwaters that come out of the Arroyo El Cajoncito.
Satellite Image Of Arroyo El Cajoncito and surrounding area
Arroyo El Cajoncito is actually the convergence of several major arroyos that drain a sizable area of the sierras east of town. The arroyo gets its name from a rocky “bottleneck” that forms a narrow gateway where the arroyo leaves the sierras that the waters must pass through. Once the waters clear the bottleneck at El Cajoncito, they make their way to the sea through five large arroyos that flow over the alluvial plain that La Paz is built on (in fact, they are responsible for bringing from the nearby hills the material the city’s built on). Or at least, that is how things worked until the mid-1960s, before government officials built a 10-meter high dike meant to block the natural paths the old waterways took through the city and divert their flows to the east and south of town to the Arroyo El Piojo (this arroyo flows past the UABCS).
But what the planners of the project hadn’t counted on was the severity of the tromba (localized storm characterized by a heavy downpour) that unloaded over the region east of the state capital on that fateful day. A rare combination of meteorological factors converged over the sierras east of La Paz and reportedly dropped 800 highly-localized millimeters (over two and a half feet) of rain in just over an hour.
Initially, the bottleneck at El Cajoncito Arroyo and a low area to the north of it known as Llano La Laguna worked in tandem to minimize the hydraulic force applied to the outer wall of the recently-built dike. But once the Llano La Laguna was full even as the floodwaters continued to roar out of the Cajoncito Arroyo, that changed. Tragically, a section at the southern end of the dike gave way and allowed most of the waters flowing out of Arroyo El Cajoncito to sweep through the southern section of the city.
The bottleneck at Arroyo El Cajoncito
An old (1940s) irrigation project at the bottleneck
The result of this unfortunate miscalculation by authorities was that in about 10 hours the aguas broncas (raging waters) from the arroyo wiped out about a quarter of the city of La Paz, an area that included some 30 colonias. Concrete houses in the path of the flood were simply washed away, leaving no trace of their ever having existed. When the houses were able to withstand the force of the water, often the people inside drowned. Residents could only watch helplessly from the banks as individuals and cars—some with whole families in them—floated by, most to a certain death.
While the real death toll will never be known–official sources place the number of dead and disappeared in the mid-500s–some have estimated that more than 10,000 people lost their lives that night, amounting to about 12 percent of the city’s population. At the time, it was the deadliest natural disaster in the nation’s history, a mark that was surpassed in 1985 when an earthquake shook apart Mexico City. Compounding the problem of an accurate count of the deceased (if the Mexican government had really wanted one) was the fact that most of those who died were recent arrivals to the city, many of them residing in “irregular communities.” Few natives lost their lives. I’ve lots of Paceño friends, most of them from the city’s old families and not one of them lost a relative in the disaster. The reason most likely is because they all lived near the city’s center and not in the southeastern corner that was devastated.
Although Liza was the wettest storm to strike the city in over a century, a post-disaster review of the events leading up to the catastrophe indicated that the calamity was far from unpredictable. In fact, Sebastian Diaz Encinas, a hydraulic engineer who had been involved in flood control issues in the region since the 1940s, had been sounding the alarm and warning of just such a thing happening for several years before the arrival of Liza, but nobody was listening.
Events Leading Up to the Tragedy
Anyone acquainted with the geography of La Paz knows that heavy rains can make some of the city’s streets impassible at times. Because of its location on the delta of an alluvial plain formed by arroyos that dewater the nearby sierras during rains, sections of La Paz have always been prone to flooding whenever storms passed through the region. The city’s total lack of storm drains to help purge its streets only aggravates the problem.
Prior to 1960 the town was small enough that there was still plenty of undeveloped “safe land” so people didn’t build in arroyos. When floods came, they were little more than an inconvenience for most of the city’s residents, although there have always been the occasional innocents who have paid with their lives for not recognizing the danger of the swift currents that are sometimes unleashed from the sierras.
In the 1960s the pace of the city’s growth picked up. The agricultural colonies that were established in the 1940s and 50s in the Santo Domino Valley, Los Planes, Todo Santos and around La Paz began to bear fruit, attracting more people to the southern peninsula. Many of these recent arrivals chose La Paz as a place to settle once they had fulfilled their agricultural contracts. When ferry service connected the territorial capital with the mainland in 1964, the peninsula’s duty-free status also stimulated the city’s development as an army of petty capitalists invaded the city’s main business district shortly after each ferry’s arrival at Pichilingue. Some of them undoubtedly stayed on. The completion of the Transpeninsular Highway in 1973 brought even more people to the southern peninsula in search of better economic opportunities.
It took 140 years for La Paz to reach a population of 17,000 people, something the city achieved in 1950. It took only twenty years to triple that number, so that by 1970 more than 51,500 individuals called the city “home.” By then, the only lands available “in town” were in the flood zones. But the city continued to expand anyway. Irresponsible or corrupt public officials looked the other way as waterways were invaded and often filled in with garbage and other debris by people who knew nothing of the dangers of flash floods in desert environments. Rather than uprooting the informal communities that sprung up in dangerous areas and having to find more suitable (and expensive) lands for them, officials decided it made more sense to incorporate them into the system where they were, providing the new colonias with public services and, of course, taxing them. No sooner did one paracaidista (literally, “parachutist” which means “squatter” in this context) community get legal recognition, another would form a little further out.
In the late 1960s territorial officials decided to protect the new colonies from the occasional floodwaters that come out of El Cajoncito Arroyo by building the now-infamous first bordo de contencion (containment boundary). The plan called for building a three kilometer earthen dike across the gap separating San Juan Hill and Atravesado Hill (these are the two principal hills one sees behind the city when looking at La Paz from a boat or from the Mogote). The idea was a good one, since—if done property—it would effectively divert the waters coming out of the sierras east of town around the city to the big arroyo that passes next to the university south of La Paz (Arroyo El Piojito). Unfortunately, federal officials chose to fund the cheapest of the three proposals submitted. Factor in the usual graft and corruption that accompanies these types of projects in Mexico and what was finally built was a 10-meter-high sand barrier with a rock surface facing the arroyo, cement was used sparingly in its construction. The project was completed to great fanfare in 1970 or so. The bordo provided a sense of security and became the de facto eastern limit of town as the lands right up to it were soon urbanized.
I’m not aware if the bordo was ever put to the test by a hurricane in the few years between its completion and the arrival of Hurricane Liza. In normal conditions, the waters that run down the arroyo don’t jump the steep sand banks that are characteristic of it through most of its passage east of town, so waters from Cajoncito Arroyo wouldn’t ordinarily have been running along the bordo. But what happened with Liza was that an inordinate amount of water fell over a very short period of time, water which apparently backed up behind the bordo while making its way behind Atravesado Hill to Piojito Arroyo. Once the section of the bordo gave way, the arroyo reclaimed its old waterways to the sea through the southeastern sector of the city.
It was a “had to be there” moment to fully appreciate what had happened. Most of the city’s residents didn’t realize the cause of the “explosion” heard that early evening and word didn’t filter back to the rest of the city of the horror that had visited the eastern and southern sections of town until the next morning.
While my family was long gone when Liza devastated La Paz, I had several friends who were volunteers at the La Paz offices of the Red Cross in 1976. All of them were called in to begin hauling bodies in the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 1st. Initially, the corpses were taken to the Salvatierra Hospital (then on Bravo Street), but as this facility was soon overwhelmed, the dead were taken to the Cancha Manuel Gomez Jimenez on Bravo Street and to the GUM Gym on 5 de Febrero (right on the very edge of the arroyo) and several other locations around town.
The initial idea was to give next-of-kin a chance to claim their relatives. But as the magnitude of the devastation was realized, government officials decided that the original plan was impractical as bodies quickly began to decompose in the tropical heat. Two backhoes were ordered to the Sanjuanes Cementary where they dug five trenches, each some 70 yards long. The dead were wrapped in make-shift sheets (they bought bolts of cloth from local stores to make them) and dumped one body on top of another in common graves. Six tons of cal (lime) were used to cover the dead to help contain the spread of disease.
It didn’t take more than a few days for public officials to call off the search for bodies, deciding that the arroyo was as good a place as any to be buried. Today one still occasionally hears of a construction site finding human remains in the sections of the city that were flooded.
In doing the research for this essay, I visited the site where the old dike was located, I rode my bike down the arroyo that overflowed with death on that September night and also rode to the top of Atravesado Hill to survey the area where the nightmare began. I studied the new fortifications that protect the city from the Cajoncito Arroyo today. What I found is a bit disconcerting, to say the least. While the north section of the new retaining wall is a beauty with a cement face on the arroyo side, the southern section—the very section that collapsed last time—is (once again) made of dirt/sand with a rock surface facing the arroyo. Although I’ve never seen a good picture of the old dike, the southern section of the new dike looks a lot like the descriptions I’ve read of the original.
What one also sees are new sections of La Paz growing up in places that have virtually no protection from the arroyo, colonias that will be in grave danger when another Liza hits this area again. If I were shopping for a house in La Paz, I would study where the old arroyos ran, particularly the Arroyo El Palo, which was one of the deadliest arroyos crossing La Paz on the evening of September 30th, 1976. During Liza, sections of Jalisco, Sinaloa, Colima and Colosio Streets were deathtraps for those caught in them.
The new cement “bordo” protecting the downtown area
What the bordo protecting the area devastated by Liza looks like
The literature—as well as my friends’ accounts—mention the suspicion that the dike was really blown up with explosives by the Army. This theory proposes that government officials were monitoring the situation and realized that it wasn’t a matter of “if” but of “when” and “where” the dike was going to give way. If a section of the dike’s north end gave out, Arroyo El Cajoncito would have flooded downtown, the city would likely have suffered greater damage and perhaps more deaths. Under this scenario, public officials would have coldly decided to sacrifice the sections of the city where immigrants lived to save the city’s center.
The President of Mexico, Luis Echeverria, visited La Paz on Oct 2nd and promised the local governor that “whatever you need, just ask and we’ll send it.” At the time, Echeverria was trying to make Mexico more independent of US influence and so chose to reject the aid that was collected and offered by its northern neighbor. Unfortunately, the federal government wasn’t able to provide what it promised, which left local hospitals in a bit of a jam. In what sounds like an effort at revisionist history, the governor who presided during the storm stated in a recent interview that he made the decision to ignore the presidential order and allowed aid flights in. One of my Red Cross friends said that only one US Air Force C-130 cargo hauler landed with supplies, which were promptly confiscated by the military, never to be seen again.
It took eight days for power to be restored to most of the city.
The dam known as La Buena Mujer (The Good Woman) was built as a response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Liza. It now serves as a reservoir for the runoff of one of the major arroyos that feed the waters that run through Arroyo El Cajoncito.
An excellent video, taken a couple of days after the event, can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbCk1_ee9AQ
Although it’s narrated in Spanish, you don’t need words to appreciate the graphic scenes of death and destruction. At around 27 seconds into the video, during a low-level flyover, one can see the gap in the old dike.
The five trenches where the dead were laid to rest
The marker commemorating them
The gap where all the water came through
The section of La Paz that was wiped off the map
The following story appears online in Spanish. It is an account written (or, more likely, narrated into a recording device) about one person’s experience during Liza and is quite moving. In its original form, it is one very long story that makes little or no use of punctuations, paragraphs or any of the other norms of writing. In my translation, I have taken the liberty to break it up into more readable blocks of information and omitted some passages that were repetitive or didn’t add to the storyline. The original story, with many photos of the devastation caused by Hurricane Liza, can be found at:
I SURVIVED CICLON LIZA 1976
By Casimiro Gardea Orozco
My story begins on September 30 of 1976. I remember getting up early to go to work with my stepfather, with whom I was working practically since I arrived in this city. I’d arrived in La Paz in August of 1975 onboard the Salvatierra, the ship that later sank in front of Espiritu Santo Island.
I remember on that fateful day my stepfather and I went to finish plastering some commercial locations we’d built for a man over in front of the military base. We were getting close to finishing the job when my stepfather told me and another guy who worked for him—I think his name was Valentin—that the owner said we should knock off for the day and go home because the hurricane was going to hit the city, so we cleaned and stowed our tools. By then I think it was about 10:30 a.m., we finished up and bid each other goodbye. My stepfather left on his bicycle while I headed home on foot. I hadn’t walked five blocks when it began raining, so I hurried home, where I arrived soaking wet. Without changing clothes, I announced my arrival to my mother as she attended to my youngest brother and told her that the hurricane was about to arrive. I began to cover the windows and door of the house the best I could, nailing a thick blanket to the door and putting cement blocks along its bottom to help support it against the strong winds that had begun to blow. I had to restack the blocks every so often after the winds would push them over.
At around 3 or 4 in the afternoon a calm arrived over the city, which allowed me to go outside to check on things in our yard. As I was doing this my stepfather, also taking advantage of the calm, arrived in a station wagon to take us to the military base which was being used as a refugee center. But it soon began to rain and the winds returned stronger than ever. Taking only our blankets, we piled into the wagon and began driving down streets that had become flooded arroyos, seeking a way to our destination. The rain was so heavy that at times we couldn’t even see where we were going. We got stuck numerous times but managed to continue on, until the roof of a house fell in front of the vehicle and we decided that it would be better to return home. As we headed back we got stuck in the mud repeatedly and our vehicle took several hits from airborne debris. Several times we had to practically carry the vehicle out of the rain-swollen arroyos, which seemed to get deeper with each passing moment.
After a two-hour struggle, at around 6 p.m. we finally made it back to our home. Before we got out of the vehicle my mother’s compadre came up to invite us to wait out the storm at his house, which was made of cement block and also had a cement roof (Tripper note: this passage indicates that the family lived in a house made of materials that were temporary in nature, a practice common in Third World countries). It seemed like a safe place for us and the other four families already there to take refuge. As we settled in, drank coffee and chatted we all felt comfortable and safe, the mood was light-hearted as we thought the worse part of this experience was behind us. We talked about the places we were from. We had all come from other parts of the country to seek work in La Paz because we thought it was like going to the United States to earn dollars since it was in the zona fronteriza (border zone) and there was a lot of tourism and we thought everything was paid for in dollars.
After about three hours of this enjoyable banter we heard a sound very different from the noise of the wind and rain that had been plummeting the roof and walls that surrounded us. It was a deafening sound accompanied by a small tremor that seemed to get nearer and nearer to us. A young guy about my age who had been visiting decided that it was time for him to return to his home. He left, but soon returned because the currents in the arroyo were too strong to cross. By then water was intruding under the doors in spite of the blankets that had been placed under them to prevent such leakage. That was when we heard one of the walls of an adjacent empty room in the house collapse. This was followed by the sound of rushing water hitting the walls of the room we had just vacated.
We realized that soon the whole house would be brought down by the force of the water rushing by. My mother’s compadre said we should leave the house and climb aboard the motorhome parked outside the residence, which we all did. Wood and other building materials from houses the waters had already destroyed piled up in front of the property we were at, parting the waters and forming an island that gave us sanctuary. But then we began to feel the impact of the material from the house we had just vacated as it began hitting the undercarriage of the motorhome we were in. One of the men in our group said he heard a child crying under the motorhome and so he and my stepfather went outside to search for him. That was when the last standing wall of the house we’d been in gave way, falling into the motorhome and knocking it over onto the man my stepfather had accompanied outside, killing him. Logically, we assumed my stepfather had suffered the same fate.
But luck was with him. He recounted several days later that when the motorhome fell over, it created a huge splash which lifted him up into the arms of a large cardon cactus that was in front of us. He spent several hours up in the cactus, until the waters running in the arroyo were low enough for rescuers to arrive and help him get down. He showed me the many thorns still embedded in his body, which doctors had decided to leave in place until his body expelled them naturally. From his perch that night, my stepfather had to watch helplessly as his entire family was swept away, one by one, by the raging currents of the arroyo.
When the motorhome turned over, the first thing we did was pray to God and then decided that it would be best to get out of the vehicle and try to reach the roof. We got the women and children out first. But no sooner did we get a person out that the raging waters would sweep them away because there wasn’t anything to hold onto. Eventually, only the other kid my age and I were left on top of the vehicle. Although it was dark, there was a visibility akin to a moon-lit night which allowed us to see our surroundings in a limited way. It seemed like we were in the ocean, for water was all around us as far as one could see. The two of us were in that situation for about twenty minutes when we felt the vehicle begin to float under us.
That was when I heard a baby cry out. I was able to spot him floating on some wood nearby. The humanity in me drove me to leave the relative safety of the motorhome “island” and try to rescue this fellow human being. But before climbing off the motorhome I told the other kid that he should grab a piece of wood from the debris to use as a flotation device, just in case. I don’t know if he understood me, but when he didn’t react, I grabbed one myself and handed it to him before setting off to rescue the baby. As I crossed over wood and other debris, I could tell everything was floating, for it felt as if I were jumping on a couch. When I reached the baby, I realized he was my younger brother. I took him in my arms and started back for the motorhome. With the other guy’s help, I was beginning to climb back aboard when a large wave knocked me off balance and swept my baby brother and the other guy into the river below.
Once I climbed back onto the motorhome, I felt very alone, but soon another wave hit me. I felt the skin of my fingertips get torn away as I tried in vain to hold onto the vehicle. Then I, too, was swept downstream. At times I was dunked underwater before popping up again to catch my breath before being dunked once more as I was pushed along by the rushing waters. I don’t know how, but I was able to grab a hold of a large piece of wood floating near me. With the wood’s buoyancy, I was able to minimize the dunkings I had been subjected to before.
As I was being rushed along, more than once I was able to make out upcoming fence posts that had barbed wire between them. I knew the grave danger these posts represented, so when I couldn’t avoid them, I tried to get my body as horizontally as possible so as to pass between the strands of wires like a board. I had to do this maneuver several times during my journey down the flooded arroyo.
At one point, I could make out the posts of high tension wires and tried to navigate myself over to one of them to try to latch on, but to no avail. A pocket of air formed in front of the cement base that wouldn’t allow me to even slam into them. At times I lost my grip on the wood I was using for flotation and was at the mercy of the currents. I could feel large rocks being swept along underneath me, just brushing against my legs but never doing me any harm, thank God.
At times during my journey, the water became shallow and I was able to stand up, only to be knocked down once again when the rushing water flushed the sand out from under my feet. I tried standing up several times but was never able to stand for long, so I quit trying, letting the water hit my back in full and rush me past large distances until I was in deep water again. In deep water my main concern was staying afloat and keeping my head above water.
As I was floating along, I suddenly heard another sound the water was making, which I recognized as the sound of an upcoming waterfall like the ones I’d known back home in Chihuahua. Just as I knew to avoid the barbed wire fences because I’d seen how they could kill cattle caught in them when arroyos occasionally flooded back home, I also knew the danger waterfalls represent. One could be knocked unconscious or break bones during a fall and that was my immediate fear. But there wasn’t anything I could do but resign myself to my fate and try to brace myself mentally for what was to come next. Just as I was being swept over the fall, I suddenly felt my progress halt and felt the full force of the rushing water engulf me. I struggled to get my head out of it to breath. My legs were pinned down by the water’s force as I continued my struggle for air. At some point, I realized that what was left of my pants had been caught by the roots of a small tree that was also struggling for survival against the water’s rage. I don’t know how, but I somehow managed against all odds to grab the trunk of the tree and was able to briefly stand on the arroyo bottom. But I realized that this action was causing the soil holding the small tree in place to be washed away, so I let the water take me horizontally again while I held onto the tree. I was in this position for some time, watching helplessly as other people were swept pass me and over the waterfall, a fate I should have shared with them. Sometimes, I could see them stretch out their arms towards me for help, but there was nothing I could do for them under those circumstances since they were out of reach and I was up to my chest in the water and unable to move.
I remember gradually distinguishing sounds other than the raging waters and suddenly realizing that someone was yelling at me from the houses of INFONAVIT and telling me to hang on just a bit longer while they helped me (Tripper’s note: INFONAVIT is just north of Soriana’s on Forjadores Street and is one of the colonias that was hit hard by Liza’s floodwaters). I looked around for where the calls of help were coming from specifically and saw a person who was using a flashlight to light the area around me. I thought that he must be yelling at me and that was when I reacted, asking for his help. But I don’t think he heard me since he was flashing his light on a large wall that was in front of me just after Forjadores Street. I could see a lot of people sheltered in a building with white walls and could make out the silhouettes of other people who went back and forth but couldn’t leave their location because the water was rushing past them on either side.
My would-be rescuer came towards me and I heard him, clearer than before, say that he was coming for me, but I didn’t see him get any closer to me. Then I suddenly heard someone about 30 meters away from me say he was going to help me and that I needed to hang in there just a little longer. That was when I finally saw a silhouette nearing me, holding onto what appeared to be a slide or some other type of playground equipment until he could reach me with his extended arm and tell me to grab a hold of it and not let go. And that is just what I did. I let go of the little tree’s trunk as he pulled me out of the arroyo and then he backed up and told me to follow in his footsteps until we reached the sidewalk in front of colonia INFONAVIT where there is now a rock wall.
We began walking towards Sinaloa Street. When we reached Jalisco Street, I remember seeing a man inside one of those cages that use to protect water mains. We told him to get out from the cage and come with us because he’d surely drown in there if the water level rose again. But he refused to listen to us and instead went further into the cage.
We continued walking until we reached the old road heading south, walking along a long line of cars that had been trapped between Sinaloa and Colima Streets. Everyone looked at us with shocked expressions on their faces, but nobody came near us or talked to us. Seeing us in rags, seminude and full of mud, they simply got out of our way. Perhaps we were the first people they had seen that managed to get out of the raging floodwaters . Perhaps they didn’t find out until the next day of the magnitude of the tragedy that the city of La Paz was living through. Perhaps at that very moment lots of people were still floating, dead or alive, in the bay of La Paz.
We walked until we reached the corner of Sinaloa Street and Forjadores, were we attempted to cross the street but failed because the current was too strong so we sat down with our backs to a wall to wait for the waters to recede. We sat there, resting for a while when a woman from a house that still exists to this day invited us in to her home (Tripper note: a business has replaced this house). She said there were lots of people in the house already, but that we could stay in one of the cars in her yard and she then opened the door to one of them. She left to prepare us a cup of hot tea. Once inside the car, the interior light came on and that was when I realized that the guy who had helped me was the same one who was in the house with us earlier that evening. But we hadn’t spoken since he’d told me to follow in his footsteps after pulling out of the water. I also noticed how he rubbed his right hand and how his little finger was suspended from his hand by a thin piece of tissue, which he apparently hadn’t noticed until that moment.
When the woman returned with our tea I asked her for some scissors. Without asking a thing, she left and returned with them. I used them to cut the tissue still attaching his finger to his hand and wrapped it in a neckerchief I found on the car’s seat and put it in his hand. He held onto it tightly as I drifted off to sleep. When I awoke, he was no longer in the car. I, too, left the car. Sinaloa Street was now empty of water. I walked about two blocks and could still hear water rushing down other arroyos. Suddenly, some soldiers appeared out of nowhere and asked me what I was doing there and said it was very dangerous there because of the arroyo. I told them I’d escaped from the arroyo and that was when I saw the first dead people among the piles of debris of boards, wood, tree branches, furniture and everything else that was along the arroyo bank. Some corpses had arms or legs jutting out from the piles while one could see the backside of others as their heads and legs were buried under piles of trash. The soldiers were picking up some of the bodies, those with uniforms. It seemed like they were only separating their own from the debris.
One of the soldiers took me to the soldier in charge of the scene and told him I’d managed to escape from the torrential waters. The man in charge told my escort to take me in a jeep over to a school that was being used as a refugee center, which he did. I don’t remember which school he took me to, but what I do remember was that as we transited the streets sometimes the water was deep enough to almost cover the jeep’s tires.
When we arrived at the school, the soldier told the person he turned me over to not to let me out of his sight, and he didn’t. I was brought a blanket and taken to a classroom where I looked out a window and saw how the water was still rushing with considerable force by the side of the building. I fell asleep again. Around dawn someone woke me up and asked if I was injured. I showed him my hands and he told me to get aboard a truck that would take us to the hospital to be checked out. Some of the others on the truck had large head injuries while others had injuries on their legs and arms and still others were unconscious.
After we arrived at the hospital it was several hours before a doctor asked what was wrong with me. I told him the skin on my fingers was peeled off and I had been hit in the stomach. He checked me out and said nothing was wrong with me but washed my hands with oxygenated water and said he’d get me some clothes. When he returned with a pair of pants and a shirt, I put them on right then and there and left the hospital, heading up Nicolas Bravo Street (Tripper note: this is the street the old Salvatierra Hospital is on).
As I neared the area affected by the storm I began to appreciate the enormity of what the flood waters had done. When I arrived at the arroyo there wasn’t any more water in it. In fact, it looked as if it had never had any water in it at all. Sections of it were so clean that they looked as if they’d been swept. The sand was so white that the sun’s reflection off of it strained my eyes. I began to see the half-buried bodies once more and a lot of people looking for bodies and marking the spots were they found them. Pickup trucks passed by full of corpses covered with dirt and mud.
I continued to walk towards our house. When I arrived I was surprised to find everything was as we had left it. The blanket was still in place on the door and the water level inside the house had only risen to about a foot. In fact, it hadn’t even reached the mattress on the bed. I sat down to contemplate what had happened when my older brother arrived and asked me about the rest of our family. I told him the flood waters had taken them all and we cried together.
Once we calmed down we decided to go look for them. We looked in a lot of places but never found anyone until we arrived at some soccer fields on Allende Street. We watched as workers were washing off corpses with a hose to clean them up so their family members might be able to recognize them. That was where we found first, our six-year-old brother and then, inside of the building, we found our mother—still holding our baby brother in her arms. Somehow, when the baby slipped out of my grasp, she was able to recover him while they floated downstream, never letting go of him, not even in death. We never found my sister.
Another younger brother of mine was rescued by soldiers from the roof of a house under construction near the Hotel Gran Baja (Tripper note: this hotel, now empty, is on the shore of the Bay of La Paz and should have had guests when Liza struck). He’d been washed down the arroyo and would have likely drowned in the bay if not for a large nail that pierced through his foot and anchored him to the structure, keeping him from being swept to sea. He required over a year of medical treatment and therapy to recover from his injuries.
After this tragedy, my older brother suggested that the three of us should intern ourselves into the Ciudad de los Niños (Tripper note: the Ciudad de los Niños [City of the Children] is a local orphanage and is located next door to the Santuario [huge church] on Cinco de Febrero), where I became a trainee in the printing shop.
The rest of the story talks about how he eventually learned the Graphic Designer trade at the orphanage and still works in the trade today.
Where the house he was swept from was once located, note the arroyo on the right.
Where he was pulled to safety, next to present-day Burger King Restaurant
The area he traveled down the arroyo
The area his brother traveled before finally getting “nailed” to a building under construction
We drove down in December 1976 and were amazed at how the landscape around La Paz had changed from the effects of the hurricane-everything super green. Here is a photo taken in front of Martin Verdugo’s Trailer Park- not much sand but lots of wood that got washed out from the desert and then packed onto the beach. Martin Verdugo told us that the water was waist to chest high and they had to hold their children up above the water for a long time so they didn’t drown.
An interesting aside on the ending of the Salvatierra is related to Hurricane Liza.
Either the Ruffo’s (the ship’s owners) or their insurance carrier contracted an American salvage company to come down and refloat the ship. The process was well underway–they’d brought with them sacks to inflate with air inside the ship and bought just about every inner tube in La Paz to aid with the effort and had the ship coming up just before Liza arrived. After Liza’s winds and tides passed through the area, the ship was hopelessly lost forever.
CICLON LIZA SEPTIEMBRE 30 DE 1976
NARRADO POR CASIMIRO GARDEA OROZCO
GRACIAS POR VISITAR ESTE ESPACIO DE CASIMIRO GARDEA OROZCO
DISEÑADOR Y ARTESANO LITICO
ALGO MAS . . . .
LA PEOR TRAGEDIA JAMAS OCURRIDA EN BAJA CALIFORNIA SUR
Por Cuauhtémoc Morgan
Cada año, el recuerdo cíclico de la peor tragedia que un desastre natural ha ocasionado en Baja California Sur, golpea fuerte los corazones de miles de paceños que sintieron en carne propia al Huracán Liza.
A la fecha no hay residente en la capital de sudcalifornia, que no haya sufrido la desaparición de un amigo o familiar en los oscuros días posteriores al 30 de septiembre de 1976. ¿Fueron 600 los que murieron? Definitivamente no. La vergüenza oficial llevó a maquillar esas cifras, al igual que ocurrió con los terremotos de la ciudad de México. En realidad fueron más de 7 mil los muertos y desparecidos, ¡el 10 por ciento de la población paceña!
He tenido acceso a un testimonio muy realista, el más confiable diría yo de una testigo de este huracán.
Se trata de Gregoria Hernández, quien dice que los días anteriores al funesto evento, todo era normalidad. Se habían recibido algunos reportes sobre la inestabilidad en la zona del Pacífico, sin embargo en aquel tiempo la información era confusa, engañosa, poco clara.
La referencia que se tomaba para ubicar los huracanes era la Isla Socorro, un pequeño punto perdido en el Océano Pacífico. Los boletines transmitidos por el Servicio Meteorológico Nacional llegaban vía teletipo a las redacciones de los periódicos y eran re transmitidos “me acuerdo mucho en los cortes informativos de la HZ y de Pancho King en la XENT”.
Una lluvia finita
Relata que los días eran normales pues la cercanía de un huracán no impactaba mucho el estilo de vida de los paceños, “la lluvia finita comenzó como a las 12 del día y una hora antes fui por los niños al colegio pues los despacharon temprano”.
Gregoria dice que no existía mayor temor entre la población, “esa tarde del miércoles 29 de septiembre todavía nos dimos tiempo para ir a comer a un restaurant en el centro, aunque la luz en algunos lados ya se había ido desde las 12 del día, pero la lluvia comenzó muy persistente a las cinco y seis de la tarde, una lluvia ligera con algo de viento, era el avance del ciclón”.
“Las calles del centro de la ciudad comenzaron a inundarse, la 16 de septiembre estaba intransitable, los arroyos estaban bajando (como siempre) y fue por eso que nos fuimos a la casa para prepararnos, ya no fuimos a trabajar esa tarde el clima estaba empeorando el viento no cesaba, recuerdo que los cables de electricidad chillaban”.
La furia del Huracán “Liza”
Refugiada en su hogar de la calle Jalisco, paralela a la unidad habitacional de Infonavit “Domingo Carballo”, Gregoria Hernández y su familia colocan tablas y protecciones en las ventanas, ya eran las 7 de la noche y no había luz, el nublado hizo oscurecer el horizonte antes de tiempo y los vientos comenzaron a atacar con furia. “Ya no había carros circulando, el agua sobre la calle Jalisco subía y subía y como a las ocho de la noche fue cuando comenzamos a escuchar crujidos muy fuerte, era que varios árboles de eucalipto estaban cayendo frente a nuestra casa”.
Lo peor había comenzado, ya eran las ocho de la noche y un ventanal de la casa de Gregoria estalló en mil pedazos, “como pudimos se colocó una tabla grande de madera para que no entrara agua, pero lo que me preocupaba era ver cómo el nivel del arroyo que se hizo sobre la calle Jalisco subía sin parar y aunque la casa está en alto nunca había subido tanto ese arroyo”.
Casi todos los hijos de Gregoria ya estaban dormidos en medio del caos, pero después de las doce de la noche inicia lo peor, “eran muchos los carros que pasaban frente a la casa y se escuchaban incesantes gritos de auxilio, la gente en su interior era arrastrada por el gran arroyo que se formó… ¿qué hacíamos?, eran gritos desgarradores de hombres y mujeres llorando pidiendo auxilio, ¡rescátennos por favor!, ¡auxilio me muero!, ¡mis hijos!, todo era un verdadero caos una historia de terror”.
Desde entonces esos gritos desgarradores solicitando ayuda, siguen muy presentes en Gregoria Hernández, “impotencia por no poder ayudar a la gente, tristeza porque se trataba de familias que iban rumbo a la muerte segura, ¡que tragedia!”…
La luz revela la magnitud de la tragedia
La mañana del jueves 30 de septiembre, después de casi no dormir, Gregoria sale a recorrer su colonia, “luego luego en la esquina (Jalisco y Chiapas) encontré gente muerta, cadáveres de jóvenes, señores, caminé y caminé y en cada cuadra era lo mismo, carros semi enterrados con gente adentro, niños sin ropa, llenos de lodo, mujeres, señoras jóvenes muertas con el último lamento de dolor en el rostro… todo había terminado”.
ESTA MUJER EMBARAZADO FUE ENCONTRADA
DENTRO DE SU CASA
La unidad habitacional Infonavit “Domingo Carballo Félix”, que era el último asentamiento habitacional al sur de la ciudad, tenía severos daños en muchas casas, sobre todo las de dos pisos, “pero había otras que las había afectado mucho la inundación, familias que murieron dentro de sus propias viviendas o bien, personas muertas arrastradas por las aguas depositadas ahí, por eso no dejé a los niños salir, era demasiada gente la que murió”.
ESTAS ESCENAS FUERON MUY COMUNES
Fue por el arroyo El Cajoncito que se vino el alud de agua que arrasó con el sur de la ciudad. Los mayores daños se pudieron apreciar desde la Casa de la Juventud (antes CREA hoy ISJUDE) hasta la colonia Infonavit y desde el cerro Atravesado hasta el barrio del Manglito. Prácticamente el 25 por ciento de la ciudad había desaparecido.
MUCHOS CUERPOS FUERON ENCONTRADOS
ENTRE LOS ESCOMBROS Y LA BASURA
QUE EL ARROYO ARRASTRO
Dice doña Gregoria que los primeros que salieron a la calle, fueron los soldados del 14 Batallón de Infantería, acantonados en la tercera zona militar. “Ellos fueron los que vi desde el jueves haciendo recorridos a pie, los carros no transitaban las calles estaban destrozadas”.
EN ESTA FOTO VEMOS COMO MANOS PIADOSAS
CUBRIERON ESTE CUERPO CON UN LAMINA
MIENTRAS SU FIEL AMIGO LE HACE LA ULTIMA
GUARDIA DE HONOR
Poco a poco se fueron incorporando miembros de grupos de rescate, como la Cruz Roja, todos ellos recogiendo los cadáveres que echaban en camiones porque desde la tarde del mismo jueves ya se estaban hinchando por el calor. “Mucha gente perdió sus casas, recuerdo que a muchos les dieron alojamientos en las escuelas, en bodegas porque no tenía a donde ir”.
ASI SE APRECIABA AL DIA SIGUIENTE DE LA TRAGEDIA
UNA TERCERA DE LA PARTE DE LA CIUDAD
También “brigadas de vacunación de los mismos soldados fueron atendiendo a toda la gente y muchos se concentraron en la zona del Palacio de Gobierno para preguntar por sus familiares, pero no había respuestas, de hecho ni siquiera el gobernador (Ángel César Mendoza Arámburo) se encontraba en Baja California Sur”.
ELEMENTOS DEL EJERCITO NACIONAL
AYUDANDO A RECOLECTAR LOS CUERPOS
DE LAS VICTIMAS
Conforme transcurrieron los días se fue desvelando la magnitud de esta tragedia. Los muertos fueron sepultados inmediatamente con maquinaria pesada en largas fosas que están en el Panteón de los Sanjuanes. Nunca se supo a ciencia cierta cuántos muertos y desaparecidos hubo, hay quienes dicen que la cifra ascendió a 10 mil. Muchos de ellos quedaron enterrados en grandes fosas que la corriente de agua hizo en el suelo arenoso. Otros más en los manglares del barrio “El Manglito”.
FUERON MUCHOS LOS QUE PERDIERON
LA VIDA EN ESTE EVENTO TRAGICO
HASTA EL DIA DE HOY NO SE CONOCE
UN CIFRA CIERTA SOBRE LOS MUERTOS
EN ESTA TRAGEDIA
Cosa curiosa, la zona centro de la ciudad de La Paz resultó casi intacta, sin mayores daños. Por eso hoy en día dicen que no fue tanto la velocidad de los vientos del huracán “Liza” los que ocasionaron las muertes, sino el violento caudal del arroyo “El Cajoncito”… Y tienen razón.
Tragedia que se pudo haber evitado
Estudios posteriores revelaron que un gavión se reventó y eso provocó que aumentara el volumen del agua que arrastró el arroyo que acabó con más de 30 colonias.
Aunque nunca se pudo probar la negligencia de las autoridades, pues en ese tiempo la cultura de la protección civil, se puede decir, era nula. La cultura preventiva era demasiado pobre, tanto como la gente que murió en las aguas del Huracán “Liza”.
A la semana la luz fue reponiéndose en varias zonas de la ciudad. La ayuda llegó de todas partes y el gobierno federal en ese tiempo a cargo de Luis Echeverría Álvarez envió toneladas de víveres. Se instaló un campamento donde se prestó ayuda a miles de damnificados en la zona sur de la ciudad, precisamente ese campamento dio pie a la formación de la popular y famosa colonia 8 de Octubre.
Pero el dolor de quienes perdieron a amigos y familiares en ese evento, nunca desapareció.
Yo me quedo con este relato, el más fiable y creíble para mí porque es de Gregoria Hernández… Mi señora madre, sobreviviente del Huracán Liza.
Predijo la Tragedia