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Highlight #1

Remembering the 1985 Mameyes Ward Tragedy in Ponce, Puerto Rico: What have we Learned?
by Miguel López*


It was a very rainy first week of October 1985. As a young teenager, rain was a fairly nice experience for me—no school, hot chocolate, tasty "Asopao" (Puerto Rican style gumbo) and playing football with my friends in the mud. My perception of flooding was about to change forever, though. As a matter of fact, this event was so important that the guy from The Weather Channel stated: "The storm caused a lot of trouble in the town of Ponce, Puerto Rico." After that I just thought, "My God, I have never heard the name of my hometown in the The Weather Channel; this must be very bad." It was.

Precursor torrential rains from 1985's Tropical Storm Isabel caused Mameyes ward to collapse, burying homes and families. Somehow, turning the television on and watching our local channel 4's (Wapa-TV) anchorman Guillermo José Torres and the rest of the crew with long faces said it all. It had been one of the worst tragedies in Puerto Rican history. Suddenly I felt really bad since I was having fun in the rain all week. It was real, and it touched my town and my people. Mameyes Ward after tragic mudslides

Seeing on television the number of bodies that were being pulled out of the mud by cranes and watching a whole team of international rescue workers made me think, "Perhaps, rain is not supposed to be fun for everyone." The evening of the tragedy, my neighbor Héctor went to Mameyes (18.022655°, -66.612803°) to tell people to get out of there because it was a dangerous area. Most of the people had the misconception that they were going to be safe because it was a high place, an absolutely wrong assumption.

Witnesses said that in the middle of the night there was a thunderous sound and then the subsequent sound of homes coming down the hill. An old man called an AM radio station saying hysterically, "The hills have just come down!" following a comment from the radio commentator, "Please, don't be so sensationalistic." It was surely hard to believe that the whole ward had come crashing down.

A lot of mysteries and myths surrounded this tragedy. Here is a list of some of them:

  • Authorities never found out the exact amount of homes and victims buried on the mud.
  • The tragedy was foretold by a Puerto Rican preacher.
  • Three days before the tragedy, a group of children from Mameye's Head Start program drew a chilling account of the tragedy in different kinds of drawings.
  • An explosion caused by a clandestine firework warehouse caused the tragedy. This rumor was supposedly corroborated by the fact that the French rescue dogs detected traces of gunpowder residues on the debris.
  • The event occurred due to thunderous lightning after heavy precipitation and the fact that the ground was already debilitated because of the lack of a sewage system. This theory is the most popular one to this day.

People who survived the tragedy were sheltered in the abandoned Ponce Intercontinental Hotel (18.021341°, -66.620224). Coincidentally, this hotel overlooks the Mameyes ward. After that, they were relocated at several housing projects including "Nuevo Mameyes I" and "Nuevo Mameyes2" (New Mameyes).

We must think about this tragedy in terms of what can we learn from it. How many people are living in areas prone to this same kind of tragedy? Who is next? Can we avoid the loss of life and property?

Certainly, we can try to reach the people with the right information to get them to take action. Prevention and contingency plans need to be in place to minimize the impact of events of this nature. It is very important that we do not forget our history and that the people who tragically perished in this event did not die in vain. Mameyes will never be forgotten.

*Miguel Lopez (mlopezopmap@gmail.com) works in the IT department in the permits office in the municipality of Ponce, Puerto Rico. He is currently working with Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and he supports the Ponce emergency management team during weather related events. He takes a serious approach to weather, since he fully understands the interaction of weather events on people and communities.


Photo Credit

Photo 1: Photo of the 1985 Mameyes Landslide (Courtesy of http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/98/Mameyes.jpg)

 

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