We were feeling pretty sorry for ourselves, without work on the river nearly two weeks. Raft guides depend on nature for their livelihoods and when it misbehaves, every single player is sitting on the sidelines. Well, this time it wasn’t nature’s fault at all. The Futaleufú is a free-flowing river in Chilean Patagonia, considered “safe” after the commune by the same name fought to preserve its pristine waters between 2007 and 2016. There is, however, a project upstream on the Argentinian side, one which transfers hydroelectric energy to far-away Buenos Aires. This particular dam released gallons of built-up water just as the Summer season was revving up. When levels are dangerously high, it becomes impossible to run trips for obvious reasons.
The river community of Futaleufú anxiously watched water levels rise and fall through the ever-lengthening Spring days, hoping in vain for good news. At 9:30am on December 16th, the power was cut throughout the town of 2,400. Nobody expected anything serious was amiss. Electricity is shaky at times, to be expected in a remote mountain town. Photos of a fire gone out of control in the neighboring town began arriving via Whatsapp at approximately 10:15am. Those who had still-functioning phone service shared horrifying images with friends and family. News spreads quickly here.
At approximately 11:00am, it became obvious that the problem was much more extensive than a block of houses engulfed in flames. A giant glacier seated close to La Villa Santa Lucia, town of 250, had broken off due to prolonged hot weather followed directly by intense rainfall. The immense piece of glacial ice dragged with it thousands of tonnes of earth, trees, rocks and debris. Flowing through the middle of the town, the mass of natural material swept up everything in its path: houses, a school, government buildings, stables, and of course… people.
The numbers of dead and missing rose steadily over the next few hours. News of the mudslide first made its way to national news programs and, shortly after, went international. 11 were confirmed lost to the incident, including one tourist and various local families with school-aged children. Over 15 were reported “missing;” everyone naturally assumed the worst. Instincts proved correct as the hours and days dragged on.
With the passing of this incident, our seemingly grave work situation from the previous weeks seemed less relevant. People had lost everything: their homes, posessions, pets, livelihoods and family members. It was as if the residents of Futa and the province suddenly snapped out of a trance to jump into action. Petty problems were put aside to make way for creative ideas and campaigns. A bank account for donations was promtly opened, door-to-door food collection taken up by people with full-time jobs, and a group of dedicated volunteer rescuers, cooks and cleaners formed before the week came to a close.
Perspective is a funny thing; often we can’t see past our own flimsy personal bubbles until an incident such as the fall of Villa Santa Lucia rocks us back to reality. We share this world with other people, creatures, life in general; and as much as the human race advances we are always humbled by nature.
See below for more information via major English-language news sources (please note, these articles were written shortly after the incident therefore estimated numbers of those affected are lower):