1 David A. McEntire2 Heriberto Urby3

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Emergency Management in Costa Rica:

A Unique Model for Developing and Developed Nations
Richard Afedzie1

David A. McEntire2

Heriberto Urby3

The following chapter reviews the approaches to emergency management in Costa Rica. It identifies the primary reasons why and how Costa Rica has transformed its disaster programs from reactive response to a proactive approach. This chapter examines the history of emergency management in Costa Rica through the lens of seven important factors. First, a short background of the geography, government, economic and social context of Costa Rica is given. Second, the history of disasters in Costa Rica is discussed through some major disasters that occurred since the 17th century. Third, the impact of physical and social vulnerability is reviewed. Fourth, emergency management policies dating from the enactment of the national commission of emergency in 1969 is provided. Fifth, organization of emergency management from the central government to the provinces is also noted. Sixth, some of the challenges and opportunities in dealing with disaster management in Costa Rica are assessed. The chapter concludes by looking at the impact of the policies shaping emergency management in Costa Rica and the contribution of these policies in the future of emergency management in Costa Rica.

The Context of Costa Rica

The Republic of Costa Rica is located in Central America. It is bordered by Nicaragua to the north, the Caribbean Sea to the east, Panama to the southeast, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. With this location, Costa Rica is a tropical paradise. In fact, the name of the country matches its natural beauty; Costa Rica, in English, translates to “Rich Coast.” The area of Costa Rica comprises some 51,100 sq. km (19,730 sq. mi.). Costa Rica is therefore slightly smaller than the U.S. state of West Virginia. It includes a coastline of 805 miles.

In terms of physical geography, three important mountain chains are located in the country; they lie in the northern, central valley, and southern regions of Costa Rica. Some of these mountain chains are particularly noteworthy. For instance, the center of Costa Rica contains mountainous regions as high as 12,000 feet (3,636.36 meters). There are even high mountainous regions located at Chirripo National Park (Guanacaste), the Northern regions and the Nicoya Peninsula. Costa Rica’s terrain is therefore rugged, and the central range separates the eastern and western coastal plains. The elevations have a significant impact on temperatures. On the coast, it is hot all year long; in the mountains, it can be cool at night regardless of the month (Greenspan 2009, p.39).

Costa Rica is made up of seven provinces including: San Jose (the capital), Alajuela, Puntarenas, Cartego, Guanacaste, Limon, and Heredia. There are also 81 “cantones,” or cantons, that represent the smaller towns located throughout the country. Upwards of four million people live in Costa Rica. Over half of these individuals live in San Jose, which is located in the center of the country.

The population of Costa Rica is diverse. 94 percent are of Spanish or European descent. The rest of the population includes indigenous populations from principal tribes such as the Bribri, Cabecat, Boruca, and Guayami (Janzen, 1983). There is also a sizeable population of English-speaking black Creoles. Due to this mixture of various ethnic groups and cultures, some racial tension has existed in Costa Rica. However, for the most part, these groups have learned to get along (Greenspan, 2009). Even so, Costa Rica has been known to experience “refugee problems” due to undocumented workers who emigrate there from Panama and Nicaragua. It is believed that Costa Rican “arrogance and prejudice toward immigrants from neighboring countries, particularly Nicaraguans, who make up a large percentage of the workforce on the banana and coffee plantations,” is noticeable (Greenspan, 2009, p. 24).

Since tourism is Costa Rica’s most important industry, many of the residents speak, and are fluent in English. This skill has enabled Costa Ricans (more commonly referred to in Spanish as “Costaricenses”) to understand and cater to the many travelers who come to this paradise from predominantly English-speaking parts of the world. However, the official language of Costa Rica is Spanish. In addition, some indigenous tribes “retain their traditional languages” (Eyewitness 2005, 257).

Costa Rica is a democratic country that is remarkably stable in political terms. In fact, this country has been labeled as an “oasis of tranquility in a region that has been troubled by civil war and armed conflict for centuries” (Greenspan, 2009 p.536). Under this situation, Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948. Assurances of military security have been provided by countries with distinct and diverse interests and ideologies, including the United States, Colombia, and Cuba. The country has therefore been able to invest much in the provision of education and social services. As a result, “the country has the highest rate of literacy and life expectancy in Latin America” (Eyewitness 2005, 18). Greenspan (2009) has stated that with no armed forces, Costa Rica is sometimes called the ‘Switzerland of Central America.” As will be seen later, Costa Rica has also become the envy of others in the area due to its improving emergency management program.

In short, Costa Rica is a land of much lush and natural beauty. It is a small country with a unique geography. Its diverse population lives in rural and urban areas, and enjoys remarkable peace (both internal and external). The country recently received another notable distinction: a number one ranking in a national “green living” happiness poll (Nelson, 2009). But this recognition should not obscure the fact that Costa Rica is a fairly hazardous place to live.

History of Disasters in Costa Rica

The land of Costa Rica has not been spared the threat of natural hazards. Costa Rica ranks second in the world among countries most vulnerable to hazards based on land area, with 36.8 percent of the total area exposed to three to more adverse natural events (World Bank, Natural Disaster Hotspots, 2005). In particular, the geophysical position of Costa Rica coupled with its tropical climate have contributed to the significant number of hazards that impact the country (see Table 1). These include earthquakes and volcanic eruptions due to the seismic activities within Costa Rica. Severe flooding is also a problem because of the substantial amounts of rainfall received in this country. Though it is possible for hurricanes to hit Costa Rica, a direct strike rarely occur because the country is south of the area where the hurricanes usually make landfall. However, even if Costa Rica is spared a direct hit by a hurricane, it has often had the full impact of high waves and bands of storm that inflict severe damage upon the country. The following discussion lists various hazards and highlights some of the major disasters that have impacted Costa Rica throughout its history.

Table 1: Natural Disasters Occurrence Reported from 1980 to 2008

Source: www.endat.be/International Disaster Database

  • Flooding: Costa Rica’s dry and rainy seasons are well-marked: the dry season months are January, February, March and April; the rainy season is made up of the months between May and December (Walsh 2004). However, there are also some variations in the weather. In the raining season, there may be an accumulation of up to 100 inches of rain per year. Excess rains in extremely humid areas or even in dry areas, where the soil cannot handle the amount of water, also causes floods that destroy crops (Waylen and Laporte (1999). Eggar (2010) has asserted that the Costa Rican town of Hacienda Cedral may hold the world record for the most rainy days in one location. It recorded 359 days of rain in 1968. The Atlantic region of the country is mostly impacted by floods and landslides while the North Pacific region is mostly affected by drought (Baker, 2007). Undoubtedly, flooding is rife in Costa Rica, and is known to produce the highest number of disaster casualties in terms of death. For instance, on May 10, 2004, a tropical storm led to heavy rains and flooding over much of Costa Rica. The Costa Rican National Commission on Emergencies estimated that 2,000 people were forced to leave their homes as a result (Bianchi, 2008). Also, on November 22, 2008, a cold front brought in its wake heavy rains, leaving at least 46,000 people homeless and 35 towns were isolated by flood and could only be accessed by air (Bianchi, 2008). This event caused at least 22 million U.S dollars in losses in Costa Rica (Bianchi, 2008). The scale of flooding caused primarily by hurricanes storms clearly shows how Costa Rica is highly vulnerable to floods and this has led to the creation of Disaster Risk Management (DRM) to deal with risk management.

Earthquakes: Costa Rica lies at the heart of one of the most active seismic regions on earth and, as a result, earthquakes occur routinely in this country (Baker, 2006). Earthquake disasters in Costa Rica have been reported since the 17th century (Heubeck and Mann, 1991). The frequent earthquakes are caused by the collision and movement of the two main tectonic plates around Costa Rica: the Cocos plate in the Pacific and the Atlantic plate. Seismic waves are caused when the friction between plates cannot hold further stress which is eventually released. Throughout the 20th century, Costa Rica registered 22 earthquakes, resulting in various scales of devastation (Pacheco and Santana 1991). The earthquake of 1910 (measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale) is considered the most devastating in the 20th century. It almost destroyed the entire city of Cartago, leaving behind 700 dead. Before the earthquake, Cartago had a population of 13,000 persons and had served as the colonial capital of Costa Rica. It is noted that while reconstruction began over the next year, most of the “Cartagineses” had moved to other part of the country (Esquivel, 1994). Another earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale hit the region of Vara Blanca-Cariblanco on January 9 of 2009. This was followed by approximately 800 aftershocks (measuring from 3.0 to 4.5 on the Richter scale) over the next 24 hours and approximately 700 more two-week later. Casualties resulting from this earthquake were 34 deaths and 91 injuries (Schmidt 2009). This earthquake also precipitated landslides that blocked roads and isolated communities. It is estimated that approximately 225 houses sustained damage, while nine bridges collapsed (Schmidt 2009). In 1990 and 1991, Costa Rica experienced three earthquakes. The Cabono earthquake occurred near Nicoya peninsula on March 25, 1990, with a magnitude of 6.8 on the Richter scale. The Cabono earthquake may have acted as the detonator that activated local faults near the town of Puriscal on December 22, 1990 with a magnitude of 5.7 on the Richter scale. This activity could have also resulted in the Limon earthquake that occurred on April 22, 1991, with a (magnitude of 7.5 on the Richter scale). This spate of earthquakes in Costa Rica led significantly in the ban on adobe as a building material by the government.4 Disasters caused by earthquakes contributed largely to the establishment of national commission on emergencies in 1969 (CNE) to deal with disaster management.

  • Hurricanes and Tropical Storms: Though hurricanes are the most occurring meteorological hazard in the Caribbean, they rarely make landfall in Costa Rica. However, most of the hurricanes that move along the Atlantic Ocean sometimes bring heavy tropical storms that impact on Costa Rica. Over the past two decades, Costa Rica has been devastated by heavy tropical storms. In July of 1996, Hurricane Cesar created the storm that hit the pacific southwest part of the country. This storm caused the death of 41 people and is noted as the worse national disaster during the 1990s. In 2007, Hurricane Alma also led to the heavy rain storm that precipitated the outburst of many river banks and devastation of the towns of Santa Cecilia, Guayabal, El Guabo, Barri Limon, Bernabela, and Canisitas in the Northern Pacific region (USAID 2009). In 2008, Hurricane Hannah moving along the coast of Costa Rica brought in its trail torrential rainfall leading to the flooding and landslides in the communities of Brunca, Aljuela, Cartago, San Jose and Heredia. In all, 5, 375 people were significantly impacted by the floods with substantial damage to homes and personal property. In particular, 5,000 people lost their main source of income because of damage in local agriculture and the tourism sectors which comprise main economic activity in the area (USAID 2009). The frequent wave of storms, especially on the Atlantic coast of Coast Rica, precipitated the setting aside of funds to deal with disaster related cost.

  • Mudslides: A spate of mudslides in Costa Rica has been the results of heavy rainfall impacting the Atlantic part of the country. Also, the high level of precipitation, coupled with steep mountainous ravines, has been known to generate raging rivers that turn into avalanches of water, mud, tree trunks and stones. One case of mudslide in the town of Orosi de Cartago (in August of 2010) resulted in seven people dead and 17 houses destroyed. To date, this mudslide is recorded as one of the worst weather disaster in the Central American country. Increases in mudslides disasters clearly shows the importance making laws on land use planning and zoning in Costa Rica

  • Volcanoes: Costa Rica sits at the center of one of the most active volcanic regions on earth. The volcanoes of Costa Rica belong to the Pacific Rim of Fire that lies along the Pacific coast of the Americas. Costa Rica has seven of Central America’s 42 active volcanoes, including 60 dormant or extinct cones (Heubeck and Mann, 1991). Arenal, Poas, and Rincon de la Viejas are a few of the most well known volcanoes in Costa Rica. Irazu is the highest volcano in the country, and it has been quite active with at least 23 eruptions since 1723 (Jacob, Pacheco and Santana 1991).The last major eruption of the (Irazu volcano), occurred in 1963, after a twenty year rest. In addition, Poas (2, 692 meters) has also been particularly violent for the past 60 years. In the 1950s, Poas, the quiet four-mile-wide giant erupted with a roar after 60-year dormancy, and it has been active ever since. Since the 1990s, the Miravalles, Turrialba, and Rincon de la Vieja, occasionally release fiery fountains of lava and brecccia into the air. Rincon, for instance, erupted in 1995, causing significant destruction in the town of Upala (Costa Rica, Moon 1999). Since 1990s there have been 11 major eruptions in Costa Rica.

Crater of the Poas Volcano in Costa Rica

Http: en.wikinews.org/w/index.php. 1/9/2009

  • Health Related Hazards: While HIV/AIDS were present in the 1990s, Costa Rica was not among the countries at the epicenter of the initial eruption of the devastating infection in the Caribbean. It is merely a “second-wave” country whose epidemics are now gaining force. Overall, 79 initial AIDS cases were reported in 1990. However, by 1995, this number reached 214. It is estimated 84 percent of AIDS cases are attributed to sexual transmission. A report by the Costa Rican Ministry of Health record that sex between men is a major factor in Costa Rica, where more than half of AIDS cases occur (Cost Rica, Disaster Risk Profile 2005). Significantly, however, reports of AIDS cases decline to 181 in 1999 due to a national health policy providing free antiretroviral therapy for people living with HIV/AIDS. This was a result of the national law on HIV/AIDS passed in 1998 which allows access treatment to all AIDS patients. In particular, Costa Rica is the only country in the Central America sub region with universal access to antiretroviral therapy for people living with HIV/AIDS. There are, however, major obstacles facing any nationwide HIV/AIDS prevention campaign. In Costa Rica, the society is deeply conservative about social issues and in many respects prudish when it comes to the public discussion of sexual issues. In addition, the Catholic Church, in particular has deep ambivalence about issues such as the promotion of condom acceptance among young people. Thus, the government of Costa Rica may need to widen its outreach program on AIDS/HIV education.

Vulnerability in Costa Rica

As can be seen, Costa Rica is highly prone to experience geophysical hazards, such as earthquakes, volcanoes and flooding. The mountainous topography coupled with heavy rainfall during a larger part of the year causes many disasters in Costa Rica. One study determined “that 77.9 percent of Costa Rica’s population and 80.1 percent of the country’s live in areas vulnerable to multiple hazards” (World Bank, 2005). The impact of these geophysical hazards are not uncommon phenomena to Costa Rica, but what makes them unique is the amount of devastation in terms of loss of life and damage to properties to the affected communities. Activities contributing to disasters in Costa Rica are mostly associated with poor environmental policies, misuse of land, and rapidly growing urban population near the hills and mountains. It is also necessary to note that special populations like migrant farm workers from neighboring Caribbean countries, the elderly, tourists, women and those with disabilities are at highest risk to disasters. This is because they lack the financial and material resources to take the necessary steps to prevent or mitigate risks from future disasters. The government attempts to reduce the impact of disaster vulnerability in Costa Rica is carried out through the national policies on disaster risk reduction. Among them are measures to integrate disaster risk reduction and mitigation components in rural development plans and promotion of co-operative disaster risk reduction among the central government, provinces and the cantones in all developments projects.

Emergency Management Policy

Before the 1960s, there was no national institution dealing with natural disasters in Costa Rica. However, in 1969, the Costa Rica Legislative Assembly enacted the National Emergency Law known as the National Commission of Emergency (CNE). This Commission functions under two main directives. First, the executive branch is conferred the power to declare a state of emergency in any part of the national territory. Second, the CNE creates the National Emergency Fund.

Initially, the CNE was only accountable for managing the resources of the National Emergency Fund. In 1999, the CNE became the leading institution for the present National Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Costa Rica. The National Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction was a special office under the central government for training and supporting emergency management staff in the provinces and districts. Also, National Emergency Laws officially assigned the National Commission of Emergency the responsibility for the formulation of the National Disaster Plan. The goal of the national development plan was basically to raise disaster risk awareness, early warning and education by the central government across all the provinces.

The most recent legislative amendment in 2006 created the path for establishing the National System for Disaster Risk Management (SNPRAE). This law defines risk management as a cross-cutting issue, demanding that all public institutions promote disaster management in their development planning and implementation (Costa Rica: Financing disaster risk reduction, 2009). Acting upon the (SNPRAE) law, all central government institutions and local government units are obliged to allocate resources for disaster risk activities in their programs and budgets. This law also set up a three percent of financial surplus or profit from all governmental institutions to be transferred to the National Emergency Fund (Costa Rica: Financing disaster risk reduction, 2009). It is noteworthy to mention that these amendments came out of a nation-wide dialogue among scientists and public sector experts (Costa Rica: Financing disaster risk reduction, 2009).

More importantly, major disasters like the 1910 earthquake, which precipitated an executive law banning the use of adobe as a construction material, as well as the impact of hurricane Mitch in 1998, prompted national attention to disaster issues and created much support for addressing disaster risk instead of emergency response. Undoubtedly, the establishment of a national policy on disaster prevention and management sets out the philosophy and major components of the national emergency management structure. To this end, Costa Rica is continuously fine-tuning and reshaping its emergency management policies that have not functioned well and making bold attempts to reduce the impact of future disasters.
Organization of Emergency Management

Disaster management is known to include all aspects of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Since 1969, when Costa Rica established the National Commission for the Prevention of Risks and Mitigation of Disasters (now known as the National Emergency Commission) this institution has been instrumental in setting up local committees across the country and making strategic plans for reducing disasters in each province. In other words, the CNE is also responsible for making the general policies and for linking all parts of the National System for Disaster Risk Management (Costa Rica: Financing disaster risk reduction, 2009). Similarly, through the CNE, standardized disaster policies like evacuation management, release of resources and line of authority are implemented for communities in each province.

The creation of the CNE specifically establishes a large central government role in disaster management across the country. In this regard, the CNE through the central government provides the funding support in disaster preparedness, response and recovery activities (Costa Rica: Financing disaster risk reduction, 2009). In performing its official work, the CNE relies on financial resources from the national budget and the National Emergency Fund. Ten percent of the CNE’s work is thus financed by the national budget, while 90 per cent is covered by the National Emergency Fund (Costa Rica: Financing disaster risk reduction, 2009). Also, the CNE is tasked with the responsibility of hazard monitoring, response strategy development, resources needs assessment and program monitoring. Furthermore, the CNE warns and informs the public of impending disasters through the government-run media. As part of the National Development Plan of 2006-2010 on Social Development and Poverty Reduction, the Disaster Risk Management (DRM) plan was created (Costa Rica Red Cross, 2009). The establishment of the DRM in the national plan directs all line ministries (such as tourism, environment and energy, agriculture and cattle and health) to include risk analysis and mitigation initiative in their annual programs. The central government through the national commission of emergency coordinates with the provinces and districts in setting up disaster committees/councils in raising awareness of disaster risk reduction, early warning and recovery efforts. These disaster committees also deal with pre-disaster vulnerability and preparedness-needs assessments in the various provinces and districts. As can be seen, the government of Costa Rica through the National Commission of Emergencies has taken decisive steps to transform its disaster management system from a traditionally reactive and relief oriented system to a proactive, disaster risk reduction and management focused system.
Challenges and Opportunities

One of the biggest concerns of emergence management in Costa Rica involves population growth in the urban areas, construction along river valleys, and the fact that population growth in areas prone to volcanic eruptions keeps expanding. This is evident from the scope of deaths and property damage from the recent earthquakes and floods in 2009. There is also growing evidence that, as Costa Rica continues to develop to meet its tourism sector of the economy, technological hazards will cause a major challenge for the central government. This can be seen in the increased number of airplanes landing daily in Costa Rica. Similarly, cruise ships arriving daily with large number of passengers can also present a major challenge of accidents with large number of tourists.

There is also the transportation challenge in Costa Rica, primarily because the government does not posses a military. For this reason, the country lacks helicopters to assist with evacuation and the provision of donations. This is a major problem since the terrain of Costa Rica includes mountains, steep ravines and low lying valleys. Although the private sector and other nations have helped in this regard, the resources have been slow to arrive or severely limited due to the high demand that exists in disasters.

The government has historically depended on international relief agencies after disasters instead of building indigenous trained in humanitarian supply management to deal with their impacts. One can argue, however, that in view of many competing claims to limited resources, Costa Rica, like other developing countries, often turns to international institutions and foreign donors to assist them after a disaster.

Other challenges include the incorporation of building codes in all disaster reduction efforts. While these building codes exist, stricter enforcement should be initiated for its use in all the provinces and districts. Furthermore, detailed information on present and future risks of population exposure to coastal and flooding hazards is important for mitigation technologies and policies.

In spite of significant challenges, a way forward is evident. Over the past two decades, a number of national policy initiatives to integrate disaster risk reduction to the National Emergency Commission are helping tremendously to reduce the spate of disaster devastations in Costa Rica. The creation of permanent staff to deal with disasters management in some of the ministries (such as health, environment and tourism) serves as a useful vehicle for a proactive and effective disaster management system. Further, emergency management offices that adopt best practices and the process of offering minimum standards of assistance on which response strategy is based are well established and offers an improved prospect for disaster management in Costa Rica. In addition, rural communities have developed local coping strategies and it is essential that some of these best practices for reducing hazards and disasters can be used as a model for other communities in the country. In this regard, it is important to improve the communication and coordination among local, regional and national research teams for the exchange of research findings. Undoubtedly, this demands a multidisciplinary approach.

Key research findings of disasters introduced into schools and tertiary curricula, would significantly promote outreach activities thereby building resilience to disaster risks. In addition, the loan guarantee by the World Bank in 2008 to supplement other funding gaps in disaster risk management programs would help develop a comprehensive risk assessment and monitoring capacity (Costa Rica Red Cross, 2008). Coupled to this is the prospect for greater interaction between the central government and communities that could lead to a more integrated agenda in disaster management in the country.

This review of emergency management in Costa Rica highlights some of the key areas of hazards, vulnerabilities, and disaster impacts on Costa Rica. This chapter also mentions some important accomplishments in Costa Rica over the past 40 years and suggests areas which may need further strengthening.

While this chapter acknowledges the many achievements made by the government of Costa Rica in establishing a National Emergency Commission, it is to be noted that most of these fine bureaucratic structures were created with the belief that “disasters can be regulated away.” In light of this, an insufficient number of concrete steps have been taken to reduce the causes and effects of disasters. The three earthquakes that occurred in the past decade strongly indicate that Costa Rica is going to be faced with more and worse disasters in the future.

However, there is no doubt about the success of the Cost Rican government in disaster management, which is transforming itself from reactive response to a proactive one. There is also the potential that some of the ambitious policy initiatives to manage disasters that do occur would create a lasting contribution to the quality of life in Costa Rica. For these reasons, this review of emergency management provides important information that would greatly improve training and facilitate good policy and decision making in Costa Rica and elsewhere.


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1 Richard Afedzie is a PHD student in the Department of Public Administration at the University of North Texas.

2 David A. McEntire is an Associate Dean in the College of Public Affairs and Community Service and an Associate Professor in the Emergency Administration and Planning Program at the University of North Texas.

3 Heriberto Urby, Jr. is an Attorney al Law, and currently serves as a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Public Administration at the University of North Texas.

4 Adobe is clay and sand mixed with water for building in the rural communities.

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