The Rio Colorado flood; part of chapter 49 in William Rögind's book
FLOODING OF THE VALLEY OF THE RIO COLORADO - CONFIRMATION OF THE LA PLATA TO AVELLANEDA ROAD
January 1915 produced a disastrous flood in the valley of the Colorado river due the bursting of a natural dam holding back Laguna Carri-Lauquén (green lagoon) which is in the high Cordillera damming the natural flow of the Barrancas river, which, along with the Grande river, forms the Colorado river.
The lake emptied itself almost completely in a single night and the quantity of water which flung itself down the Barrancas river and the Colorado river was enormous. From its length of 21 ? kilometres, the lake was reduced 5? kilometres and its surface level dropped about 95 metres.
It is estimated that 2, 000 million cubic metres (two cubic kilometres) of water swept down the valley of the Colorado river. This figure gives one some idea of the size of the disaster.
To understand the reasons for the catastrophe, one needs to know the circumstances which gave rise to Lago Carri-Lauquén, that is to say, to know the history of the lake. In the report into the causes of the flood of the Colorado river in 1915, the geologist, Dr Pablo Grocher of the General Directorate of Mines Geology and Hydrology established in 1916 some most interesting information on the subject, some of which we extract.
Over a great many years starting in the Tertiary Age the Barrancas river excavated a narrow deep channel. The floor of the valley was only a little wider than the river itself and its sides, even to this day, are steep slopes of 1, 000 to 2, 000 metres high.
There must have been a flow of lava into this channel or there was a collapse which obstructed the course of the Barrancas river. As the dam reached up to, more or less, 1, 500 metres above sea level, the surface of the water rose to this height filling the valley in a short while.
Once the water had reached this height, it flowed over the lowest point of the dam and cascading down over the rocks and reached the original level of its course. The steep slope of the dam had made the water flow very fast, giving it sufficient strength to move stones and boulders from the foot of the dam. Once at its old level, the river lost its strength, and could not move the vast numbers of boulders. It thus deposited them in a vast conical deposit, which reached, more or less, as far as the mouth of the Quili-Nalal burn into the Barrancas river.
In the spring of 1914 (spring arrives late in the high Cordillera, in November or December), the masses of snow which had fallen in extraordinary quantities the previous winter melted. The enormous amount of water which flowed into the lake caused its surface to rise considerably. Thus the pressure, which was building up on the dam, grew too much for it and it gave way.
The avalanche of water caused serious damage. The small scale cultivation undertaken by the land-owners was destroyed along the whole length of the Barrancas river. In front of the meeting of the Guara-Có burn with the river, the cultivated area was more extensive, but it too totally disappeared. The police stations on both sides of the Barrancas river also suffered greatly.
In the corner of the Mendocina police station, previously there was a league of irrigated field, some hectares of alfalfa, about ten houses, plots of maize, trees, etc, of all this, not even dregs remained.
The police station disappeared and where there was once a fertile field, today is a stony expanse. The same happened to the police station on the same side as Neuquén. Most of its young livestock, groves of poplars and houses disappeared. On both sides of the Colorado river there once were roads; now they were impassable.
At the Las Bardas crossing there was an estancia La Margarita, which was in the vanguard of progress in the district. It was razed. The water carried everything away as has been described about the police stations.
Equal ill fortune touched all the bends on this part of the Colorado river's precious land. The cultivatable corners were the only thing which gave some value to that region; outwith the bed of the river extended the desert. The sterile stony-bed occupied the only soil which gave hope to the ultimate economic development of that region.
The undertaking of the Southern Railway organised an expedition to the area of the Carri-Lauquén loch immediately after the disaster to study the upper sources of the Colorado river and to establish the special causes and circumstances which gave rise to the terrible flood in the valley.
Engineer S. Blencowe led the expedition, and accomplished his objectives in exemplary fashion. The results were presented in an extensive report dated 6 July 1915.
According to Mr Blencowe the Carri-Lauquén loch must have broken its banks at four in the afternoon of 29 December 1914. The wave passed Barrancas at eight on the same evening and reached the estancia 25 de Mayo at two in the afternoon of the 30th.
The data collected shows that in the Pena Blanca and 25 de Mayo colonies, which form part of the territories of Río Negro and Pampa Central respectively, 110 lives were lost and between Carri-Lauquén and Meridiano X 25 people drowned, with a further 50 drownings in the Province of Mendoza.
Laconic news arrived from Chos-Malal on 31 December of a catastrophe which had occurred in the vicinity of Barrancas and Colorado. The news gave a sombre note to the old year and a sad reality to the new one. There were few details, but there was enough to realise that something very serious had happened in those far away places.
The rise of the Colorado river assumed extraordinary proportions which surpassed all previously known.
At the start of the flooding, Mr Elardi, Governor of the Territory of Neuquén, sent a telegram to the Traffic Superintendent at Bahía Blanca, Mr Coleman, telling him that the waters were advancing from Chos-Malal in such a way that a disaster could be presumed. As a result he asked him to send a relief train to collect the many families and to bring such help as was needed. At once Mr Coleman had a train prepared on which were loaded four boats to assist evacuating people to safety. Along with the train were Messrs Nelson and Field of the Engineer-in-Chief's Department and the Traffic Inspector Mr J G White.
The plan was to take the train as far as possible in order to render efficaciously the assistance requested.
The correspondent of the La Nación (newspaper) related the details of this rescue expedition as follows:
"On reaching Buena Parada, the station was found to be full of people who were asking to be taken to a safe place. The picture of the poor families certainly made an impression because pitiable mishaps still waited to be added to the pain suffered. Mr Coleman's train collected the families and took them to Río Colorado station, where, given the elevation of the land, there was less danger than at Buena Parada.
As the intention was to respond to the governor's call for help, in order to answer the appeals which were starting to come in from nearby areas, Mr Coleman ordered the train to proceed, but after some 15 kilometres the train was stopped by the waters.
The flood had continued its advance unrestrained, tearing up posts, fences, hovels, carts, taken by surprise on the road, and scattering the poor residents who could flee in time.
The waters had swept like an avalanche over the peaceful villages. Villages were destroyed, railway lines cut, homes cruelly demolished by the blind impetus of nature and on top of all this, to crown so much loss, many lives were lost. The picture had scenes of tragedy.
It was necessary to resign oneself to accept the desperate situation which the people found themselves in. Those who were going to render assistance to others, needed to be rescued themselves. A long length of line started to flood.
The advancing waters reached the rails, then rose a bit more and, slowly rising, spilled in to the coaches through the windows.
Fortunately Mr Coleman had taken the precaution of keeping two of the four boats on the train, which he and his companions had to use, or otherwise would have perished.
Taking everything from the train which they could, the travellers occupied the two boats steering to a high spot near a sheep fold in danger of being swept away by the water. There, with the oars and a tarpaulin they improvised a shelter.
Fortunately they were able to butcher a few animals as the sole source of secure supply of provisions and handed them out to the residents who were in a position to receive them. The travellers spent five days avoiding the dangers which they saw around the camp site - five days in which they didn't take off their clothes, and nights which seemed never ending in front of nature's pitiless drama, before they could return in their boats to Río Colorado station."
In this station, as in Pichi Mahuida, the waters was well above the level of the rails, reaching 3.60 metres at Pichi Mahuida, depositing enormous amounts of sand carried along by the current.
The flood was at its peak on 6 and 8 January. The villages of Buena Parada and Río Colorado were under water and completely cut-off. The current at those points was extremely fast. The river was then almost two leagues wide.
On the 9th the water started to drop at Río Colorado station which allowed various launches to get there and rescue many families who had been on the station roof and taken refuge in wagons.
The waters washed out the Southern Railway's embankments in many places and it was necessary to suspend traffic from 4 to 26 January.
Most interesting was the vivid description by the special correspondent of the La Nación newspaper in the edition of 20 January 1915.
We reproduce some paragraphs of this account:
"The villages of Buena Parada and Río Colorado are totally destroyed. From the principal business houses to the humble dwelling of the poor subsistence family, all have been visited by the catastrophe. Some came, who up to yesterday had resources, to accept the government's mite and the help proffered by the Southern Railway. The latter justly deserved applause for their involvement in helping the villages along the line from the first moments of the disaster.
The losses by the company are considerable. Not only because traffic to Neuquén has been interrupted, with no movement of passengers or produce from the whole of the vast area served, but also because the track over a length of 100 km had been destroyed and will take some time to repair. The train on which we reached Río Colorado was the first train in a fortnight. Prior to that they had been stopped at the approach to the bridge next to the village of Buena Parada.
In Bahía Blanca station we found the director general of the territories, Dr Ruiz Moreno and the governor of Río Negro, Mr Serrano who were talking to the Traffic Superintendent, Mr Coleman, Mr del Gaje, commissioned by the Executive Power, and the secretary Mr Infante of the manner in which the beautiful project of the boy-scouts of Bahía Blanca would be possible to undertake the distribution of clothing among the families bringing succour to those experiencing losses.
The first train which then reached Río Colorado, with Mr J. G. White, Traffic Inspector, in charge, brought an abundancy of what the people needed. They wanted to know what had happened in the world after so many days of isolation. The intensely vivid picture of the disaster was there in the midst of the piles of rubbish fallen into the street, still converted into an evil-smelling sea, caused by the decomposition of the dead animals which had not yet been removed because of the depth of water.
On entering Buena Parada it was possible to see the effects of the flooding, which got worse towards the banks of the Colorado river. The country houses, whose green-ness indicated the livelihood of their cultivators, the small vineyards, the gardens, the small-holdings, all had been totally annihilated by the waters and the strength of the current caused by the force of the sloping avenue from the high Cordillera. And along with the dead animals, feet uppermost, in capricious falls, brutally tumbled in strange mounds, floating on the waters of the streets was all manner of domestic bits-and-pieces imaginable, all in a confused pile among floating dead birds, cats swollen by the water, trays, clothing, furniture, etc
The start of the disaster was terrible. The women remember it with tears and the men with emotion.
"I am happy, sir, that La Nación had the good judgement to send a reporter," one of the principal inhabitants of Río Colorado told us. "When Buenos Aires gets flooded, there are districts which always get flooded by heavy rain, and the newspapers print columns and columns to tell us of the Boca, Nueva Pompeya, the low part of Belgrano, in short the whole area invaded by water. In this case we have been abandoned, but then we understand that it has been by lack of knowledge of the disaster, and perhaps by lack of communication.
We still have the painful impression of the hard morning of the third of this month, when the Colorado river overflowed with its frightening din it put us through the anguishes of this disaster never before seen by us, although the earlier floods were damaging enough, but they were not so cruel in their violence and the volume of water.
We had vague news that the river had started to overflow, but, whatever way, the knowledge was more or less based of the vicinity of the catastrophe, the only one which allowed us was to save conveniently our families without trampling us in the dispersion.
At seven in the morning of that nefarious day, the neighbours heard something like the roar of distant gunfire, or a volcano erupting - muffled, fierce, threatening. The noise became stronger, indicating that the force, which produced it, was getting closer. Alarm mounted, and the prescience of a disaster started to be translated into reality. It made us tremble thinking of the lives of the children and the ill.
Suddenly, the river rose up and started its terrible overflowing. It was leaving its course, and invading the country-side and the population like a quick harvester. The land began to disappear under the liquid cloak. The streets and houses began to fill with water. The invasion continued under the influence of the driving force. We were hardly knee deep before the people in the houses higher up, thinking that it would pass, had to abandon them, and take to the water, lifting children who had been put on top of tables. A cry of anguish was heard in all places. Families called out to each other to get together and die together or flee together, but the tumult of voices drowned out the weeping. When we remembered, the furniture started to float, and the wooden houses, uprooted by the force of the current, fell, as they could not resist the flow and the violent gusts of wind usual in this part of the world, but then blowing as a mad thing.
What a sight! The children's shouts of panic, the mothers' moans, who squeezed the sick ones against their breasts as a prisoner disputing death - the clamour of the old folk, unable to move without assistance - the tumult of the poor demented beasts crushed by the waters - in short, all the of danger all the watchwords of the instinct of self preservation spurred on by the prescience of the evolving danger to the population in a bitter anxiety.
And still the water rose. What happened, great God? The population had been already put in safety with happily few personal misfortune. The railway station, located at the highest point was the place where they all congregated, but then it too had to be abandoned to seek refuge on the hillocks. As I have said, the water rose, accentuating its enraged roaring.
In the business houses it lapped the upper part of the shelving, reaching an incredible height, but it can be proved today by the perfectly marked water line.
The population fled with everything they could carry and at least took some odds and ends in the desperate hands of their escape.
In the rescue, the local authorities and the staff of the railway undertaking co-operated. The Justice of the Peace, Mr Perez, worked without rest, while the resources requested of the national government and the first provisions, consisting of a good supply of biscuit prepared by all the bakeries in Bahía Blanca arrived."
The BAGSR's route to Neuquén