Around the world, the biggest news the past couple days has been the impact of Hurricane Sandy on North America. The surging tropical deluge that began in the western Caribbean and worked its way north, colliding with polar air over the eastern seaboard, has inundated large areas with tidal surges and river flooding, shut down essential services including hospitals and subways, and dislocated or confined millions of people. New York City, of course, has drawn the most attention, as the local infrastructure has been unable to deal with a storm of this magnitude.
By contrast, almost nobody outside South America has noted that Buenos Aires and its surrounding Pampas are also experiencing a series of ferocious storms. According to Montevideo-based Mercopress, a storm that shows no sign of relenting dropped 200 mm (eight inches) of rain in just two hours early yesterday morning, and has led to two deaths and the evacuation of 3,400 citizens in the capital and Buenos Aires province.
South America’s relatively low international profile aside, its own climatic phenomena do not have the same notoriety as Caribbean hurricanes, and that’s partly a matter of physical geography. In the northern hemisphere, the South Equatorial Current flows northwest toward the Caribbean, where the atmosphere becomes saturated with humidity and forms the cataclysmic storms that hit the North American continent. In the southern hemisphere, though, the southward-flowing Brazil Current turns eastward into the open Atlantic rather than approaching the South American continent.
For that reason, Buenos Aires doesn’t get catastrophic single events like Sandy, but what I like to call the New York of South America does get big storms that can stress local resources, largely because of its own unique geography. The city and its low-lying Pampas have almost no relief, and the watercourses that cross them quickly flood the low lying terrain, as they did when I was in the Pampas city of San Antonio de Areco (pictured above) three Xmases ago.
In the city itself, most of these watercourses have been undergrounded since colonial times – you can get an idea of what’s been done in the past by visiting San Telmo’s Zanjón de Granados (pictured above). Still, though, the city’s infrastructure is still not prepared to handle heavy rainfall, as local officials recently admitted. In big storms the water can run knee deep along streets such as Palermo’s Avenida Juan B. Justo – the channeled Arroyo Maldonado that runs beneath it cannot absorb such quantities.
What’s lacking, in part, is the political will to solve, or at least mitigate, the problem. No single government may be to blame for a long-running problem but, at a time when the federal government is spending US$150 million per year to subsidize Fútbol para Todos (Soccer for Everyone) on public TV, one can certainly question current priorities.