When rain falls, water rushes dangerously close to Julian Covarrubias’ house, perched off a narrow streambed near the U.S. border.
Like many of his neighbors in this tightly packed section of Tijuana’s eastern Las Torres neighborhood, Covarrubias knows the dangers of staying put, but he has no plans to leave if heavy rains hit the city in the coming months. “We don’t have anywhere to go, so we’ll just stay here and see what happens,” said the 63-year-old mechanic.
Like San Diego, Tijuana is preparing for El Niño, as warmer than normal ocean temperatures could bring heavy rains rains to the region this winter. In Tijuana, neighborhoods such as Las Torres are of special concern, with residents in fragile, makeshift structures in areas that are often unapproved for development.
To date, Tijuana’s Civil Protection Office has labeled nearly 6,000 homes in different parts of the city as “high-risk.” Some are built in streambeds, vulnerable to being flooded or swept away, while others are perched on loosely packed ground that can easily give way to landslides.
“A lot of people are from elsewhere,” said Juan Carlos Méndez, the city’s civil protection chief. “Many are not accustomed to the kind of rain that happens here in Tijuana. It’s been years since we’ve seen a lot of rain, and that creates indifference.”
Tijuana has grown rapidly in recent decades, and “part of that growth has been outside urban planning,” said Roberto Sánchez, a researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte who specializes in urban environmental issues and climate change.
With 32 sub-watersheds, he said, “in Tijuana everything is so concentrated and the topography is so difficult that it aggravates the exposure of people and infrastructure” to problems such as heavy rainfall.
Authorities say Tijuana is a far different city than in 1993, when weeks of steady rainfall brought major flooding to the city, claiming 39 lives and leaving thousands homeless.
Five years later, in February 1998, intense rainfall brought flash floods that claimed six lives in Tijuana and seven in neighboring Rosarito Beach in a single day.
“The city is much improved since 1998,” the strongest El Niño year to date, said Antonio Rosquillas, a former Tijuana civil protection director who now heads the state’s civil protection office. Investment in storm drains, flood control infrastructure, and paving projects has changed the face of many neighborhoods.
“It’s not the same city as it was before,” agreed Alejandro Cancino, an architect who oversees the city’s storm drain system. The city today counts 27 sedimentation tanks to trap mud and debris, he said, compared with two or three in 1993, he said.
But across the city, tens of thousands of residents continue to live in self-made houses made with scrap materials and without building permits, in areas often unsanctioned for development, leaving them at risk when storms strike.
“If it rains heavily, we’ll have flooding, and rushing water, but what really concerns me is the collapse of fences and walls,” said Rosquillas. The soil in Tijuana “is geologically very young, it has not become compacted,” and that creates precarious conditions in the city’s hillside neighborhoods, he said.
Civil protection workers are hard-pressed to say which areas of the city are the most vulnerable. A range of factors are at play, including intensity of the rainfall, its duration, the moisture of the soil, the presence of trash and debris in streambeds and storm drains
“It’s a difficult topic,” said Sánchez, the researcher from the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a Tijuana-based think tank. “On the one side there is uncertainty of how intense El Niño will be this year. It’s likely that it will rain intensively, but we don’t know how much and how often,” he said, adding that “we don’t know if the current storm drain system is capable of responding to intense precipitation.”
The Colegio is completing a study that looks at Tijuana’s adaptation to climate change, and weather phenomena such as El Niño, aiming to pinpoint the city’s vulnerabilities. The authors have been looking at which parts of the city are most exposed to flooding and landslides, and what are the socio-demographic conditions in these areas, and what resources are available to overcome the effects.
“In Mexico, we are very used to waiting for the public sector to respond,” Sánchez said. “The vulnerability of Tijuana to climatic impacts is so big that it requires the participation of society as a whole.”
In Tijuana, the city has been working with business and civic groups to prepare for rain-related emergencies. Mayor Jorge Astiazarán on Tuesday signed a collaboration agreement with nonprofit groups that could help out with rescues and emergency services, and offer medical care.
Méndez, the city’s civil protection chief, said groups have come forward with offers of heavy machinery and emergency power supplies.
Moving is not an option for many residents of the city’s vulnerable areas, who fear that if they evacuate, thieves will take away the few possessions they have.
Fernando Bañuelos, a 39-year-old maquiladora worker, said he is loath to leave the small property he purchased by a streambed a decade ago. The road is unpaved, and there is no sewage system, but the government has brought in electricity and running water.
“Every year, before the rains, they come and put a red sticker, telling us it’s a high-risk area,” said Bañuelos, a father of two. “We want to be safe from the rain, but like anyone anywhere in the world, we think, ‘Why should I leave, if it’s mine.’ ”
By Sandra Dibble