Natural Disasters in Latin America: A Look Back at 2017

2017 saw approximately USD 330 billion in losses from natural disasters worldwide, of which around USD 135 billion were insured, according to a Munich Re report.  It was the second costliest year on record, only surpassed by 2011.  Latin America was no exception to the trend, as a number of natural catastrophes hit the region last year.

The hurricane season brought two major hurricanes to the Caribbean and Central America.  In early September, Hurricane Irma made landfall with Category 5 intensity in Cuba, and subsequently in the Florida Keys as a large Category 4 hurricane.  Irma also caused widespread destruction in the islands of Barbuda and Saint Martin.

Only ten days later, Hurricane Maria followed a similar track, hitting some of the same islands again and compounding the damage caused by Irma.  The storm hit Dominica at Category 5 strength, inflicting catastrophic damage and ravaging surrounding islands.  Maria then made landfall in Puerto Rico, with winds of 250 km/h (155 mph).  It leveled many structures and devastated the island’s electric grid, leaving millions of people without power. 

Also in September 2017, Mexico was hit by two earthquakes, which caused a combined loss of over USD 8 billion.  On 7 September, a magnitude 8.2 earthquake struck off the southern coast of Mexico, near the state of Chiapas.  It was one of the strongest earthquakes in the country’s history, and the most powerful globally in 2017.  In Chiapas, thousands of homes were destroyed, and at least 98 people died.  The earthquake also shook buildings and caused damages as far away as Mexico City.

Twelve days later, on 19 September, another earthquake struck, with a magnitude of 7.1 and epicenter south of the city of Puebla, only 120 km (75 mi) from Mexico City.  The earthquake caused significant damage in the states of Puebla and Morelos, and in Mexico City, where at least 44 buildings collapsed.  370 people were killed.  A number of the collapsed buildings had been built in the 1960s and 1970s and lacked structural reinforcements.  There have also been complaints that many of the fallen buildings failed to comply with safety regulations.

Earlier in 2017, severe floods and landslides occurred in the northwestern coast of South America.  In Peru, a climate phenomenon known as “El Niño Costero” led to torrential rains in the first quarter of last year, and to the overflowing of numerous rivers, resulting in major flooding.  Large areas in northern Peru, as well as the area around Lima, were affected.  At least 113 people were killed, and there was severe damage to infrastructure, with more than 2,500 km (1,500 mi) of roads numerous buildings, and over 115,000 homes demolished.  The overall losses from the floods amounted to USD 3.1 billion – the majority of which was uninsured.

On 1 April 2017, unusually heavy rain in the area around the city of Mocoa, in Colombia, situated in the Andes, caused several rivers to overflow, resulting in flash floods and landslides.  Some neighborhoods were completely devastated, many homes were leveled, and portions of the city were covered in several feet of mud.  At least 329 people died.

These were the major natural disasters affecting Latin America last year.  It remains to be seen whether 2018 will bring similar large-scale natural catastrophes to the region.  Some experts are projecting an increase in the frequency of extreme storms (Category 4 and 5) in most areas due to continued climate change.  In a study published in November 2017 , a team of researchers analyzed the coastal communities in Latin America and the Caribbean at a high risk of being affected by natural disasters, and concluded that the “hotspot locations” of coastal risk include:  El Oro, Ecuador; Sinaloa, Mexico; Usulutan, El Salvador; and Chiapas, Mexico.

Posted by José Umbert