Major Flooding in Chile

Floods displace 15,000 in Chile
Fri May 23, 2008 6:16pm EDT By Antonio de la Jara

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Heavy rains and flooding that killed five people and displaced thousands in south-central Chile have collapsed road and rail bridges, closed the world’s largest underground copper mine and left many in the capital without drinking water, the government said on Friday.

Many schools remained closed in Santiago and elsewhere after floodwaters churned up sediment at water treatment plants, while several rivers burst their banks farther south, deluging thousands of homes.

“More than seven rivers have overflowed,” said Juan Saldivia, undersecretary of public works. “We had a very complex situation overnight, and Route 5 (Chile’s main north-south highway) has been cut in three places.”

Landslides caused by the rains also forced the shutdown of the giant El Teniente copper mine, owned by state miner Codelco.

Codelco said it could take 48 hours to clear rock, earth and floodwaters blocking access to the mine, which lies 50 miles south of Santiago and was recovering from disruptions from the latest in a series of strikes by subcontractor workers.

Television footage showed a collapsed railway bridge in the wine-producing region of Maule, about 125 miles south of Santiago, which forced the suspension of rail services to the south.

The government said 8,000 homes had been affected and that 316 people were stranded across the country. About 500 people were in shelters while most of around 15,000 forced from their homes were living with friends and family.

Of the five people killed earlier in the week by the flooding, two died in landslides, one was struck by a boulder and another was hit by a falling tree. One man died of hypothermia.

RAINS FILL RESERVOIRS

Streets turned into rivers in some areas.

In Santiago, 1.4 inches (35.7 millimeters) of rain fell in 24 hours — the normal amount of rainfall for the entire winter season.

Parts of Chile experience downpours and flooding around this time every year.

Police and firemen armed with sandbags and heavy machinery sought to build flood defenses to protect houses in the eastern sector of the capital after a canal overflowed.

There were no immediate details of any effects on crops, which had been hurt by one of the worst droughts in decades.

Rains eased on Friday, but further rainfall was expected next week.

On the upside, the rains have refilled hydroelectric dam reservoirs drained in recent months by the worst drought in decades, and reduced the likelihood of electricity rationing.

The major Colbun reservoir, owned by the company of the same name and located in southern central Chile, has seen its levels rise beyond the May average.

“The rains imply that we can relax a bit and that the chances of rationing have been reduced,” Energy Minister Marcelo Tokman told an energy seminar in Santiago.

“Even though it is a big help for the coming months, the truth is we are still at lower reservoir levels … compared to a normal year, so we must remain cautious.”

Scant rainfall has hit hydroelectric power generation, while cuts in natural gas imports from neighboring Argentina and high costs of running diesel generators are putting pressure on industry and the public.

Tokman said the rains and guarantees of at least limited natural gas from Argentina have brightened the energy outlook for now.

(Additional reporting by Monica Vargas, Rodrigo Martinez and Pav Jordan; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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