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Deluge, floods, landslides in Peru leave more than 80 dead, 111,000 homeless


Catholic News Service

LIMA, Peru — Felicita Chipana was at work when the Rimac River began to rise. By the time she got home, her kitchen was gone, swept away by floodwaters that left scores of families homeless on the east side of this sprawling capital city.

“We have no water, no electricity, and there are mosquitoes everywhere,” she said as a bulldozer cleared sediment out of the river channel below what remained of her rustic house.

Agents of the Peruvian National Police rescue people from floodwaters March 17 near the Rimac and Huaycoloro rivers in Lima. (CNS photo/Ernesto Arias, EPA)

Agents of the Peruvian National Police rescue people from floodwaters March 17 near the Rimac and Huaycoloro rivers in Lima. (CNS photo/Ernesto Arias, EPA)

Her granddaughter had developed a fever after being bitten by mosquitoes, and her daughter had taken the child to the hospital.

Picking her way over boulders carried down the river by the flood, Chipana joined neighbors, who had also lost their houses, as Catholic Church workers coordinating emergency aid noted their names and the number of people in their households.

All morning, dozens of volunteers from several Lima parishes had gathered at Santa Maria Parish in Huachipa, in the Diocese of Chosica on Lima’s east side, the area hardest hit by flooding in March. They sorted and bagged donations of food and water for emergency distribution, setting aside huge sacks of clothes and bedding for later.

Unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean off Peru is causing heavy rains on the usually arid coast, swamping cities that have poor drainage and destroying wood or mud-brick houses not built to withstand a downpour.

Rain in the Andes Mountains has triggered landslides, sending water and sediment cascading down rivers like the Rimac, blocking roads and sometimes burying vehicles.

As of March 23, 85 people were reported dead, 270 injured and 20 missing in the deluges. Nationwide, 111,000 people had lost their houses and another 670,000 had suffered damage to their homes.

Along the desert coast, flash floods raged down riverbeds that had been dry for years. Near Chipana’s house, floodwaters had swept away two trucks.

A video of a woman struggling out of a maelstrom of water, mud, tree trunks and rubble near a town south of Lima drew hundreds of thousands of viewers on YouTube.

“Urban neighborhoods have been built with no planning,” said Rocio Sanchez of the Chosica Diocese office of Caritas, the church’s humanitarian aid and development agency.

After landslides on the hilly east side of Lima in 2012, local governments stopped giving people title to lots in hazardous areas. But many neighborhoods have been built on unstable hillsides or in flood plains. Most residents of those neighborhoods are people who migrated to the city from rural areas, or, like Chipana, those migrants’ children.

Father Teofilo Perez, pastor of Santa Maria Parish, estimated that 750 of the 75,000 families within the parish boundaries have been affected. Some were stranded until the water level in the Rimac River dropped.

“People don’t take the necessary precautions,” said Father Perez, who became pastor in February, just before the worst of the flooding. “They’ve been building their homes closer and closer to the river.”

Father Perez grew up in Chiclayo, on Peru’s arid northern coast.

“As a boy, I never saw rain,” he said. Now his home town is partly underwater, along with other major coastal cities.

Farther north, farmers in Piura braced themselves last year when an El Nino was expected to pelt the coast with heavy rain. Instead, farmers battled drought.

So when rains came in January, people were grateful, said Manuel Alburqueque, director of the Jesuit-run Rural Research and Promotion Center (CIPCA, for its Spanish initials), in Piura.

But now nearly one-third of the people affected by the disaster live in Piura, where 10 hours of storms March 22 left the city awash. Peru’s weather service predicts that the rains will continue into April.

The Peruvian government has earmarked at least $800 million for reconstruction, which will include rebuilding nearly 200 bridges and repairing more than 3,700 miles of highway.

Periodic flooding has devastated Peru’s coast for thousands of years, but Alburqueque hopes that after the most recent disaster, residents and government officials will pay attention to zoning maps, to avoid rebuilding in high-risk areas.

“We need to build sustainable cities,” he said.

In Lima, Chipana is not sure what will happen to what’s left of her house.

“I’d like to move away from here,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “But I have nowhere else to go.”

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Pope tells young Paraguayans: ‘Stir things up,’ then make them better


Catholic News Service

ASUNCION, Paraguay — “Stir things up, but then help organize what you have stirred up,” Pope Francis told about 220,000 young people gathered on this city’s waterfront on July 12.

Youths sing as they wait for Pope Francis' arrival for a meeting with young people along the waterfront in Asuncion, Paraguay, July 12. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Youths sing as they wait for Pope Francis’ arrival for a meeting with young people along the waterfront in Asuncion, Paraguay, July 12. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In his last major event before ending a weeklong trip to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, the pope spoke about service, solidarity, hope and freedom of heart.

Abandoning his prepared text, he based his remarks on the testimonials of two young people who asked him questions.

He also told the crowd that the young man who had read the Gospel, whom he identified only as Orlando, had asked him to pray “for freedom for each of us, for all of us.”

“Freedom is a gift from God, but we have to know how to receive it,” Pope Francis said. “Our hearts must be free.”

Liz Fretes, 25, told the pope how she put her life on hold to care for her mother, who had dementia, and her sick grandmother. Strained by studying in the evening and caring for her family by day, she found support among young people in her parish youth ministry.

Highlighting Fretes’ care for her mother and grandmother, Pope Francis emphasized two themes that he raised often during his trip, service and solidarity.

“Liz is fulfilling the fourth commandment, honor your father and your mother,” he said. “Liz is setting aside her own life in the service of her mother. That is an extremely high degree of solidarity, of love, a witness.”

When Manuel de los Santos Aguilar was a child, his parents turned him over to a family in the city, a practice not uncommon among rural families who hoped their children would get an education. Instead, the 18-year-old told Pope Francis, he was forced to work and fell into substance abuse.

He, too, found support in parish youth ministry, “where I met God, my strength,” he said.

“Life wasn’t easy for Manuel,” the pope told the crowd, but “instead of going out to steal, he went to work. Instead of seeking revenge for his life, he looked to the future.”

Those who have loving families can study and have what they need to live should give thanks to God, he said, leading the crowd in a prayer of “Thank you, Lord.”

Several times during his speech, the pope urged the young people to repeat his words.

“A free heart,”” they chanted back. “Solidarity. Work. Hope. Effort. Knowing Jesus. Knowing God, my strength.”

Fretes’ and de los Santos Aguilar’s stories showed that hope and strength come from knowing Jesus, the pope told the crowd.

“We don’t want young people who tire easily, who are tired and have bored faces. We want young people with hope and strength,” he said. “But that means sacrifice and swimming against the tide.”

He recommended reading the beatitudes, which he called “Jesus’ plan for us,” and echoed his exhortation from World Youth Day, when he told young listeners to “stir things up.”

He noted, however, that a priest had complained that when they stir things up, young people often make a mess that others have to fix.

“So before I leave,” he said, “first, pray for me. Second, keep stirring things up. Third, help organize the things you stir up, so nothing gets destroyed.”


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Pope says Paraguayans in poor barrio remind him of Holy Family


Catholic News Service

ASUNCION, Paraguay — Pope Francis returned to his roots July 12 when he visited Banado Norte, a poor neighborhood near the Paraguay River where residents battle seasonal flooding and face possible eviction.

“I couldn’t be in Paraguay without being with you, in your land,” he told the crowd gathered outside St. John the Baptist chapel, one of 13 chapels in the huge Holy Family Parish. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Pope Francis ministered in similar neighborhoods.

Pope Francis greets an elderly woman as he meets with people of Banado Norte, a poor neighborhood in Asuncion, Paraguay, July 12. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis greets an elderly woman as he meets with people of Banado Norte, a poor neighborhood in Asuncion, Paraguay, July 12. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Bishops in Paraguay had wanted the pope to meet with small farmers and indigenous people who have been forced off their land. When those groups were invited instead to a larger meeting with civic organizations, the bishops organized the visit to Banado Norte, one of a string of riverside neighborhoods called the Banados, which were mainly settled by migrants from rural areas.

The pope praised the people for their solidarity, calling it a “human and Christian virtue that you have, and which many, many of us have to learn.”

“It doesn’t matter how often you go to Sunday Mass,” the pope said. “If you don’t have a heart of solidarity, if you don’t know what is happening to your people, your faith is very weak, or it is sick, or it is dead. It is a faith without Christ, without God, without brothers and sisters.”

Faith and solidarity are the greatest message that the people of the Banados can send to the rest of the country, Pope Francis said. He warned, however, that “the devil wants you to fight among yourselves, because that’s the way he divides you, defeats you and robs you of your faith.”

Pope Francis said the families he met as he walked down an alley in Banado Norte reminded him of the Holy Family.

“They also had to leave all they had and go to another land, where they knew no one, where they had no home or family,” he said.

And the first witnesses to Jesus’ birth were shepherds, “whose lives are also governed by the inclemency of weather and other types of inclemency,” he said.

That message resonated with Carmen Sanchez, who welcomed Pope Francis to her tiny, dark house in an alley behind the chapel where he greeted and blessed her and her neighbors.

When Sanchez’s mother arrived from a rural town 60 years ago, this boggy area beside the Paraguay River was the only land available to poor migrants.

“It was awful, all water and mud,” Sanchez told Catholic News Service. “Her home was made of mud bricks.”

Other families arrived, gradually filling in the worst of the muddy areas and building the Banados, which stretch for kilometers along the riverbank.

Every year around April or May, the water level rises and the river often overflows its banks. In 2014, it nearly reached to the door of the tiny chapel where the pope spoke to the people who crowded into the muddy sports field, waving yellow and white scarves and cheering him warmly.

Every year, some families are forced to leave their homes and take refuge with relatives elsewhere or camp along roads on higher ground, Jesuit Father Ireneo Valdez, pastor of Holy Family Parish, told CNS. Last year’s flooding displaced most of his parish’s 20,000-plus families.

As Pope Francis visited the chapel and spoke to the crowd, he was flanked by huge posters of letters and drawings by about 2,500 children from schools, welcoming him, recounting the problems of their families and neighborhoods — flooding, drugs, crime, sickness, separation — and asking his blessing.

Several children expressed fear that their families will be forced to move.

That is on the minds of most adults, as well. The city government has plans to fill in the area, extend a riverside highway, raze the houses built by people like Sanchez’s mother and replace them with upscale shopping centers and apartment buildings.

“They want to take us away from of our places,” Maria Josefina Chamorro, chapel coordinator, told CNS. “We built this chapel ourselves. We have schools and a health center. It would be sad to be taken away from all of this, which we built with so much effort and sacrifice, to a place where we would have to start all over.”

Before Pope Francis’ visit, Maria Garcia, who heads an umbrella group of 11 community organizations, told CNS residents of the Banados lack property titles, and some areas do not even show on maps.

As the pontiff sat on the stage beside the chapel July 12, Garcia described the problem to him and called for affordable land titles, “decent housing or the possibility of improving what we have, health care and the possibility of a decent education.”

Most Banados residents eke out a living by fishing, gathering and selling recyclable materials, laboring as masons or carpenters, cleaning windshields at traffic lights or selling items on the street, Father Valdez said.

City officials have tried to relocate people to housing elsewhere, but because their livelihoods center around the riverbank neighborhoods, they return.

He and Garcia called for a solution that would allow people to stay in their neighborhoods.

“We can’t oppose economic growth, but it needs to be better distributed,” Father Valdez said. “The policies need to benefit the people who live here.”

The neighborhood organizations have a counterproposal for development that would allow the Banados residents to remain in their neighborhoods, Garcia said, but they have not gotten a hearing from the city government.

Local residents said they hoped the pope’s visit would call attention to their plight, but they noted that city workers who improved their rutted road before the pope’s arrival spread gravel only as far as the chapel he would visit, leaving just a muddy track beyond it.

As Pope Francis bade farewell to the crowd before returning through the alley past Sanchez’s house to head for Mass in Nu Guazu Park, he offered a final word of encouragement.

“Keep going,” he told the crowd, “and don”t let the devil divide you.”


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