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Evacuation: Final Blog for the 2007-08 Season

Sarah Faegre | Oct 23, 2008


This final blog tells the story of our evacuation from our flooded field site and sums up some of the seasons high points.

February 17 2008

I am writing to you from the partially flooded city of Trinidad, Bolivia after a complicated 3-day evacuation (by boat) from the field site where we were working most recently to monitor a Blue-throated Macaw nest.  Myself and Steve, a co-worker, were camping at an isolated estancia (rural farm) which, under normal conditions can be accessed by a 2-hour horse ride from a different estancia which, until this flood, could be reached by road. 

Rain was a complicating factor from the day one at Encanta-it rained almost every day for our 3-week stay, leading up to a grand finale of sorts on the night of February 10th when a tremendous 12-hour thunderstorm turned the already-flooded landscape into a more critical situation.  During that very long night we were all flooded out of our living quarters, be it tent or house, despite the raised tent platform the family had helped us build a week earlier and despite the piles of dirt and canals surrounding the house.  I suppose "flooded out" isn't quite the right way to describe that night because there was nowhere to go "out" to-no dry land in site- and the tent wasn't actually underwater.  So we simply shivered in damp sleeping bags and hoped our platform wouldn't float away.  The family of 8 meanwhile, all sat on the beds in the kids' room, which was the least flooded of the 3 rooms in the dirt-floored home.  Steve described our experience in the flood quite well in an e-mail that he sent home to friends upon our arrival in Trinidad.  He has given me permission to copy it here:

Hello all—we just returned to Trinidad, Bolivia yesterday Feb 13 -we've been trying to get back here for almost a week, after the Blue-throated Macaw nest box we were watching was invaded by wasps, and the 2 eggs there proved to be infertile anyway.

We've been dealing with rising water for several weeks.  First it was just the inconvenience of having to move the tent to a new place as the patches of dry ground grew smaller, and of having to scout a new route to the nest where the water levels were lower and would not overflow our boots.  (Everything is so wet here that the only suitable footwear is rubber boots that come almost to the knees.)  Then it was the inconvenience of getting wet to the knees and flooding our boots no matter which way we walked to the nest, and of having the family we are living with move their cooking and eating space from the outdoor kitchen to the outdoor shelter where we had our hammocks.  Because of this, during most of the daylight hours there were about 6 kids and 2 other adults crowded nearby and the animals were trying to share the same space too, so that it was difficult to escape the squeal of pigs and the chatter of kids.  Finally, the livestock became truly threatened by the lack of dry ground, and it started to become impractical for the people also.

Over the last week this entire province of Bolivia, called the Beni, has turned into a national disaster area due to widespread flooding.  Though the rainy season is an annual event, the flooding this year is the greatest that anyone can remember.  We were walking through knee-deep water on our last trips to the nest box and then on the night of Feb 10/11 an intense thunderstorm, lasting all night, inundated the entire farmstead where we were living.  Our tent was on a raised platform and stayed semi-dry, although the water came within an inch of the floor at the front of the platform and was level with the water at the back.  Waking up in the morning we saw no dry ground in sight, water everywhere, and the top of the outside of the tent was covered with spiders, frogs, crickets, and ants that had gone awash in the floodwaters and then crawled onto our tent platform and then kept climbing till they reached the top of the tent.  We had already been trying to leave for several days but had been frustrated by poor radio communications.  Finally the farmer managed to get through by radio to a small town, where he asked someone to come evacuate his animals, his family, and us, as the situation was starting to get dangerous for the animals (all the baby chickens and pigs had drowned).  That afternoon a motorboat came and ferried the pigs to high ground, then evacuated me, Sarah, and the 3 school age kids to a nearby farm. 

The next day, the boat evacuated the farmer's wife and her three youngest children to their tiny orchard island, about 1 km away from their house, and then took the rest of us on to the tiny town of Loreto.  In Loreto, virtually the entire population had been displaced by flooding and most people were living in US-supplied tents-military helicopters and cargo planes were much in evidence as international relief poured into the area.  That night we were literally refugees, staying in a place for displaced people, and the next day we were able to hire the same boat for the 80-km trip down the winding river systems to the city of Trinidad. 

Below:  This is a mural in the center of Trinidad, showing a map of the region.  I am pointing to the tiny, flooded town of Loreto, where we spent one night, before traveling to Trinidad (symbolized by the large, orange square to the northwest of Loreto).

The spark plugs were faulty and we stopped several times to clean them and change them, and when we finally arrived the owner said he had thought we were not going to make it.  I was keeping a mirror handy to signal a helicopter if the motor really had gone out.  Also there were issues with finding the way through the flooded landscape and the boat had to turn around several times after not finding a way through a patch of dense forest or other vegetation.  When we finally reached the outskirts of the city of Trinidad we were relieved to find that the main highway was not flooded and we could hitch a ride on a truck into the center of town, which was still high and dry and functioning normally.  However on the way we passed large areas of temporary tent cities where people from the lower-lying outskirts of town had evacuated to.  So, while things seem normal right here in the center of town, all the surrounding area is a disaster zone.

Virtually all available rooms in town had been rented out but the same room we had used in the past happened to be still available, because the roof leaks and so the hostel owner had not rented it out yet.  So a leaky roof was our good fortune.

The simple facilities here seem like first-class accommodations now—any kind of running water in the bathroom, even if unheated and undrinkable, seems like a real luxury.  A few days ago I was waiting for a bat to fly out of the hole in the outhouse seat, and watching a toad swimming around in the murk below, and watching Sarah pull a 5-foot anaconda out of the hole in the outhouse seat.  For weeks now, as the water level has been slowly rising and the amount of truly dry ground has been constantly shrinking, snakes were becoming more and more abundant.  Fortunately we did not see any of the poisonous vipers, only anacondas, although we heard of one fatality in the nearby region due to snakebite while we were listening to radio messages.  Likewise armadillos became very abundant-they take shelter in termite mounds to avoid the rising water.

Although we are safe here our thoughts are with the farmer's wife and three small kids who remained behind, living in a tent in their “chaco” or orchard, where the ground is higher than in the farmstead.  They should be safe for the immediate future, as the water levels at the farmstead were starting to fall again when we left.  But this is the rainy season and a few more big thunderstorms could change everything for the worse.  Due in large part to their inability to bear the expense of feeding so many mouths in the city, and also due to the need to keep an eye on the livestock and corn, the farmer's wife and the three small children did not evacuate with us.  Only the 3 school-age kids came out, who need to spend the next several months in the city attending school.  The farmer came out too to see the older children off, but will return to the chaco in the next few days if possible.  By boat of course. 

Travel arrangements are difficult—for example after we arrived in Trinidad we found that another member of the Blue-throated Macaw project had just returned from a 3-day boat trip that he organized to evacuate us.  While the heavy thunderstorms were pouring down on our tent, he was in the boat out in the open.  Due to the poor radio communications, he was not able to advise us of his plans and we were forced to make other arrangements.  So, when he finally arrived at the farmstead everyone had already left.  His whole trip should have taken only a single day but no one on the boat knew the way and they got lost repeatedly, and also had some engine trouble.

We probably won’t stay in Trinidad for more than a couple of days.  The city is still under threat from high water and a few big storms could breach the retaining walls and flood the entire city.  We are only here because it is the only city with an airport with scheduled commuter flights in the area.  Hopefully, the airport won't flood soon!  We’ll fly to another part of Bolivia that is not in the midst of an emergency, travel for about 2 weeks, and then return to the US.

That’s all for now….  Steve


So, as Steve said, we are now safe in the center of Trinidad, and the family is safe on their garden island-the only bit of dry land within a kilometer of the house.  The city of Trinidad has turned into a tiny, functional, dry center where the well-off people are lucky enough to live, surrounded on all sides by clusters of tent neighborhoods which line the sides of the road, just out of reach of the floodwaters.  The water has stopped rising since our arrival in Trinidad on the 13th, but heavy rains are predicted for the next few days and residents fear that the center may flood, as well as displacing, once again, many of the families in the tent neighborhoods. 

Back on the topic of macaws, the 2007-08 season of Blue-throated Macaw conservation work has come to an end and I have a lot of incredible stories to tell about the birds and my experiences working with them.  It was a good season for the macaws and for our crew.  We had a group of dedicated biologists from 7 different countries, working from August through the present, and in great part due to the widespread effort of the volunteers I am happy to announce that the macaws have had their most successful year in the history of the project.

The series of blog entries which have preceded this final update for the 2007-08 season were typed up from sections of my handwritten journal.  I hope you have enjoyed my stories about our success with the intensive handfeeding of neglected chicks, my observations of the successful fledging of several macaw chicks, and their activities during the following weeks, as well as the many other stories of my life as a field biologist in rural Bolivia. 

I will be retuning to Bolivia again this winter, to participate in the 2008-09 effort of the Blue-throated Macaw Project.  Please check back soon for a current update of the 2008-09 season effort!

Below:  Evacuating the field site by boat