On January 8th 2009, a shallow Richter 6.2 earthquake rocked the local area. It was centered near Varablanca, on the slopes of Poas Volcano. Though the quake caused significant structural damage to buildings and services throughout the Poas region of Alajuela, the real damage was caused by landslides on the eastern slopes of the mountain.
Fortunately, we at Hotel La Rosa de America were relatively unaffected. Though the quake was powerful, the hotel structure was built quake resistant and we suffered only minimal superficial damage. However it was quite something to see 130,000 litres of swimming pool water still sloshing about 10 min after the quake subsided.
Unfortunately, not all were so lucky. Approximately 2,800 people were left homeless and there were many injured and some dead. The real numbers of dead and missing will not likely be accurately determined due to incomplete census data and as a result of the scope of the landslides.
Four days after the quake, we decided, as a hotel, to offer aid to the newly set up emergency Red Cross (Cruz Roja) stations near the worst affected areas. People were still being rescued when we decided to drive as far as we could to deliver our donations. The staff at the hotel put together 100 individual meals, and about 25 sets of bedding and bags of clothing. We managed to get as far as the town of Poasito, located at about 7,500 feet above sea level. A short distance past Poasito, the road showed significant damage and then it disappeared entirely over a new cliff. Even though tropical, in this area the night time temperatures are very cold for those without proper clothing.
We were quite impressed with the organization of the Cruz Roja. Costa Rica has no military and only a small police force. There are few emergency resources to draw from and virtually no heavy lift/helicopter rescue ability. This clearly compounded the rescue difficulties faced by the Cruz Roja until assistance came from Columbia and the USA. The over 3000 aftershocks (some of which registering a high as 4.8) have not made their job easier or safer either.
Fortunately, the epicenter of the quake was in a relatively unpopulated area of Costa Rica. Just 25 km to the south is located the densely populated Central Valley with over a million inhabitants. From a tourism point of view, the road north from Poasito via Varablanca towards San Carlos suffered catastrophic damage and may never be rebuilt. La Paz Waterfall Gardens is closed indefinitely as is the upper Sarapiqui River. The Sarapiqui sustained a series of huge landslides which plugged up the river causing significant environmental damage and halting river rafting, fishing and snorkeling activities on the River for probably at least a year. Fortunately, the Paquare River was unaffected and rafting operations continue there unabated.
This earthquake occurred virtually under POAS volcano. Fortunately, the volcano is still quiescent and shows no signs of becoming active soon. Poas National Park re-opened to visitors last week. Most other tourist attractions and facilities are back to normal now.
We sincerely hope that the 900 remaining families without shelter find placement within Costa Rica soon and that proper geological studies are done of the Varablanca region to determine proper slope stability in advance of any re-construction efforts. A repeat of this disaster due to lack of planning would be horrible indeed.