In just over a week’s time, it will be the third anniversary of the Sant Llorenç disaster, an event firmly etched in the memories of us all because of its awfulness and its sadness.
It doesn’t wipe away the tears, but the explanations for what happened three years ago go far in providing an understanding. Once the waters subsided, the bodies had all been recovered, the heroic armies of volunteers had completed their clean-up, the services had been held and the tributes had been made, the causes became all too obvious - the geography of mountain and torrent, the sudden and unprecedented rainfall, the nature of the torrent, the lowness of bridges and their depth, the proximity of development and infrastructure. Inevitable. The flooding was inevitable. The loss of lives was unavoidable.
To these specifics had to be added the communications and the technologies. In the aftermath of the tragedy, these were dissected. The Aemet met agency conceded that it should have acted more swiftly in issuing a red alert for northeast Mallorca. As it was, this came at 10pm, by which time all those who perished would have been dead.
Press reports about Aemet sometimes refer to the Palma office. There is such an office, but the prediction system doesn’t involve Palma alone. Or it didn’t in October 2018 anyway. Aemet had undergone an internal cost-cutting restructuring because of the financial crisis.
The Balearics branch, the Palma office, had consequently divested responsibilities for issuing warnings to Catalonia. On October 9, three different warnings were given - yellow, orange and ultimately red. The decisions were in effect taken some 250 kilometres away. The orange alert, incidentally, was raised at 6.53pm.
More than 200 litres per square metre of rain fell in Colonia Sant Pere. The massive storm struck around 7pm, and this was some way from Sant Llorenç, where there wasn’t an Aemet weather station.
Then there were the emergency services and the coordination function of the government’s emergencies department. The Inunbal emergency plan in the event of a flood was activated at two minutes past nine, an hour before the Aemet red alert. By 7pm, the 112 service was receiving emergency calls. People were trapped in vehicles.
The Guardia Civil were fully mobilised by 7.35pm. It is believed that the thirteen people who lost their lives all did so between 7pm and 7.15pm.
The questions have therefore been asked as to whether the fatalities could have been avoided and whether there were failings on behalf of the emergency services - the Inunbal plan in particular. As noted, Aemet has accepted that forecasting could have been better, but it was acting according to protocols and resources at its disposal at the time.
Moreover, it has since been pointed out - not by Aemet but by independent researchers - that no modelling system being used by meteorological agencies and research institutions across the globe came close to predicting the amount of rainfall. Even if there had been more accurate predictive modelling, would this have given sufficient advance warning?
There had been a yellow alert in place all day until just before 7pm, when it was raised to orange. It had been raining during the day, but this had not been out of the ordinary. Incidents as a result of this rain were normal. It was to be the sudden, sheer volume of rain in a localised area that caught everyone out. Allied to the geography and the rest, the flooding was the consequence.
The Consell Consultiu is the Consultative Council legal body that principally acts as an advisor to the government and public authorities. It has been asked for its opinion as to events three years ago because of a legal claim that has been brought against the government’s emergencies department by the family of Rafael Gili, the former mayor of Arta who was one of the thirteen people who died.
The case against the department centres on apparent serious negligence in not having given adequate advance warning that would have allowed precautionary measures to have been taken. The Council’s opinion, which is not binding but has been needed for the judicial process, is that there was no neglect or passivity on the part of the emergencies department and emergency services.
The Council has considered the chronology on that evening and has concluded that actions were adjusted according to an event that exceeded any forecast. There was, therefore, response to a catastrophic situation, but by the time it came, it was too late. This was because - as the Council has noted - neither Aemet nor the emergencies department had information to indicate that there would be the violent rainfall that there was and the resultant flooding.
The Council’s view, rightly or wrongly and which is of no solace to any of the families of the deceased, is that the tragedy of Sant Llorenç and elsewhere - as Rafael Gili died at his property on the outskirts of Arta - was inevitable.
The Inunbal plan should have been activated much earlier, but even if it had been, would fatalities have been avoided? What time should it have been activated? 7pm? Unfortunately, this would have made no difference.