My house from above, 2015

I have no idea if there is news about what happened in Costa Rica a few days ago. Costa Rica generally doesn’t get much press.  In the U.S., there is news about Venezuela, yes.  But what is there to talk about with Costa Rica? No oil and it’s small and relatively poor. And it doesn’t even have a military–which is why a lot of us immigrants are here.

Well – we were hit by a Tropical Storm that was later named Nate as it barreled through Costa Rica and Nicaragua and on towards the US. Here, just about 5 days ago, it kind of slid in unannounced and un named and was hard to notice after weeks of heavier than normal rainfall. September had recorded over 50% higher rainfall than normal during the rainy (green) season. The ground was completely saturated – and the last thing it needed was more rain.  But that’s what Nate brought – heavy, sustained rain – all day and all night for the beginning days of October.  I kind of didn’t get it – was down at La Princesa in the evening for dinner on the 5th with Linda (owner of La Princesa) and Billy’s family – Eliza, Kimberly and Leis. Yes it was raining, but oh well…    Then, during the night there was heavy wind, which was quite unusual where I live.  I got up several times to check on it, close any windows I could, and look out to see if everything looked okay.  I was uneasy.  By 3:30 a.m. I was up with a flashlight wondering about what looked to be an open crack in the newly planted grass – close to the gravel area we’d just finished as the final touch for the front yard.  Bordered by bougainvilleas, it was so beautiful.  I looked again at the crack in the grass area that seemed just a little lower than it had been the evening before. Up at the first morning light I wondered if it was my imagination that the retaining wall looked just a little bit lower on one end.  I decided to wait until the rain let up a bit so I could walk down to see it from below – on my neighbor’s driveway access.  I fixed coffee and was sitting at my computer checking emails and Facebook when suddenly I heard a huge, unidentifiable sound – a roar.  The dogs started barking and because I didn’t have my hearing aid on yet, I looked to them to see the direction that caused their alarm. The front yard.  Opening the front door I simply stood in complete disbelief. Shock, actually.  Over half of the front yard – with the grass, the bougainvilleas, the gravel edging, the carefully tended gardenias and vines and the entire retaining wall was gone. It had all been pushed away and down onto the neighbor’s access driveway about twenty ft below. Huge concrete and steel beams that had been anchored to the wall had been ripped out of the earth and were standing semi upright looking like totem poles or a bizarre caricature of Stonehenge. My steel fence along the neighbor’s driveway was mangled beneath the gigantic pile of spongy wet dirt. Even the base of stone filled gaviones had been rolled and pushed across the driveway. An avocado tree dangled at a precarious angle, still clinging to the part of the yard that remained. I simply stood and stared.

The rest of that day – Wednesday was kind of blurry. I called Anita, who came up with Melany to see if it looked like there was more damage above. And then I called Billy who came up to see the damage, talk with my neighbors and begin the process of looking forward a bit to what we would do once the rains stopped. The first thing would have to be to clear the driveway below – and would require a backhoe and a dump truck to carry away the concrete, steel, wet dirt and piles of rocks. We’d try to save the river rocks for later use. At least there was a bit of an immediate plan – and we understood that we all had to wait for the rains to let up. It weighed heavily on me that my neighbors were trapped in their house below and that they had no electricity or phone because of my mudslide.

Meanwhile, all of Costa Rica was being hit hard by this storm, the likes of which no one could remember. Over the day the reports just did not let up – several bridges in the San Isidro area were destroyed or damaged and unusable and had trapped many people. Mudslides and landslides were everywhere – two on the road from my place down to Billy’s.  Suddenly no one could travel on the roads. A Musoc bus was trapped between mudslides on the Pan Am Highway and power poles crashed leaving large parts of the population without electricity. A dam failed that provided fresh water to most of the San Isidro residents – 35,000 people. The earliest they will get water would be a week. As the day continued there were more reports and the entire country declared a stage 4 emergency. Creeks became rivers and existing rivers overflowed and flooded. By the day’s end, six people had died and over 5000 were evacuated to shelters. Main roads were closed and the Southern zone where I live was isolated from the north due to ubiquitous landslides. It was forecasted that the Pan Am highway would likely take months for repair. Though this tiny country didn’t make the news in the states, it was the only topic of conversation here. Several of my Expat friends had to be evacuated or rescued. My friend, Linda Bass tells of her rescue by her Tico neighbors, ‘The Kindness of Strangers’. See attached. Even the futbol game that would decide Costa Rica’s participation in the  World Cup playoffs was cancelled for Friday and re scheduled for Saturday.  (Though Costa Rica didn’t play well, we tied with Honduras which means we are in the World Cup!)

I lost electricity and internet for several hours and spent most of my time feeling frightened about what was coming next. Though NOAA was predicting two or three more days until the ‘Nate’ moved north into Nicaragua, I tuned in to Windy.com – which was forecasting a different scenario, a more hopeful one. And sure enough, Friday the 6th dawned with sunshine and calm. At first light I reached for the phone to call Billy, who was simultaneously calling me to say that he had found a man with a back hoe and dump truck who could come do the work today, though he was a little more expensive than others. I replied ‘Yes – let’s do it now’, knowing that the government would be quick on this dry day to hire all available equipment and workers to clear roads and deal with country wide emergencies. They all arrived at 8:30 and for the next 9 hours worked non-stop.

One of our biggest initial issues was where to put the debris – that included the huge beams of concrete and steel ‘deadman’ that had braced the existing wall by extending back into the yard nearly to my house as well as the steel fence and the six gaviones that failed to hold the base. (A gavione is a steel wire cage of approximately 3’ x 6’ containing tightly packed but loose river rocks).  Mixed in was all the slushy and slimy super saturated mud along with my beautiful array of bougainvilleas, gardenias, birds of paradise and ginger. The nearest landfill was miles across town – and Billy again came to the rescue. He had just helped another neighbor with a mud clogged drainage pipe so he asked if we could dump our refuse on his land. Thankfully, we were given the permission that would save time and a lot of money.

Throughout the day the work continued and I spent my time answering emails, talking with my concerned sons by FaceTime and Skype and checking with Billy, who became a one person master diplomat – taking with my neighbors, the backhoe operator and me. And of course I would be the one who paid for the work.  By the end of the day, the slope was scraped clear, the driveway was open and as day turned to night, the neighbors were putting up their temporary electricity and phone lines until they could get them better situated. Billy said he would go to the hardware store in town in the early morning to purchase plastic sheeting and plastic drain pipe to replace the broken pipe that carried water from my studio roof gutters to the road – again to protect my neighbors below from heavy water runoff. On Saturday morning it was done in a couple of hours and finally I was able to relax a bit.

So what next?

With the slope hopefully protected by plastic and my neighbors with full access to their houses again, I am relaxing a bit and letting the shock abate before I do anything more.

I now have time to reflect…and plan. I know I must now stabilize the slope from further erosion that could threaten the house.

My mind slipped back into a recounting of the many small decisions and mis steps that got me to this place at the top of a slope down to my neighbors’ driveway once again.

Back in 2008, when I bought the property – there was a good sized yard that extended from the house out to a steep slope down to my neighbor’s driveway. Then, just a few months before I moved in, Tropical cyclone, Alma came in from the Pacific causing widespread damage throughout Costa Rica. About half of my front yard slid down into my neighbor’s driveway. I was notified and of course I  sent money to have it removed.  A fence was built at the base of the slope and around the property for security and dog safety.  Plantings along the top of the slope provided some visual privacy from below, but it was difficult to maintain because of dogs clamoring up and down the slope to bark at neighbors and dogs below.  What to do?

I did nothing until 2014, when I finished Frank’s house, soon after he passed in March.  Suddenly – the yard looked too constrained and I spoke to my builder Oscar about extending the yard. That’s when the word ‘level’ came up.  I inquired about a level yard that extended out to the edge of Frank’s house and he agreed that he could build a level yard with a wall.  My view was a retaining wall  and the word ‘level’ to me meant horizontal, at the same level as the existing house. His view was a sloping yard  and the word ‘level’ meant to him that it would slope in a consistent angle down to the neighbor’s driveway, where there would be a wall built. Translation differences and Tico engineering created the misunderstanding that was compounded by his need to go to Panama for work and leaving the makeshift gaviones to be filled by his son and another worker. Who didn’t. Work. Suddenly I understood that we had two very different views – and I halted it all. I hired others to complete what was begun on the existing base of gaviones. The first wall that was built failed soon after and I scurried to repair by hiring a new guy who had experience with retaining walls. Just then, Oscar returned from Panama and pleaded to repair the wall with ‘deadman’ anchors, a lot of concrete and steel and heavy reinforcement that would be tied and anchored back into the existing yard. Teetering on the edge of a decision to start over entirely or to allow Oscar to save face – I opted for Oscar. I loved the result and the beauty with the border of bougainvilleas for two years.

Now it has failed and I must start again. This time I am in no mood to do it without good engineering advice.

From friends and Facebook acquaintances, I have received a lot of advice – and mostly to do with a favorite perennial grass that is known to prevent erosion – vetiver. While erosion control is so important and desirable, it is not my only design preoccupation.  I want my privacy back. I remember well before the wall and the yard – kind of like it is now – with barking dogs, a fence needed at the base, my neighbors below playing and waving from the driveway and how I had gradually retreated into my house for the quiet I craved.  So – we will wait for the dry season, coming up in a couple of months – and this time the retaining wall will be engineered, soils tested etc. This time it will be built to stay put–as much as is possible in a country that is nearly constantly in motion.

Smiling, I am thinking back – years ago – to when I first met Frank–a geologist and Canadian Expat with nearly 15 years of living in Costa Rica. One day he visited me at my house. He simply smiled when I pointed to an erosion crack in the dry season earth. I told him I was a bit concerned about the fact that it nearly extended across my yard parallel to the edge of the slope.

His reply:  “Jan, do you not realize that everything on the mountain is very slowly moving towards the sea?”.  My response was “Oh”.

Now I get it.

Still, I would like to slow the process. And for now, I’d like to keep my little Tico house and privacy here on the edge of the mountain overlooking the lovely city of San Isidro de El General in southern Costa Rica.  Eventually the plastic will be replaced. I can almost see the new front yard bordered by an analogous palette of orange to red violet bougainvilleas.