Opening ceremony interrupted by nature
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By Raul Colón
Special to the Daily Sun
It just took less than 20 minutes to undo months of preparation as tornado-force winds forced the postponement of the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Central American and Caribbean games, slated to start at 7 p.m. Saturday.
What was believed to be a waterspout, or a tornado over water, was later described by the National Weather Service simply as extremely high winds.
Felipe Pérez, president of the Games Organizing Committee reported that 25 people were injured by the winds, with one worker having to have his hand amputated. Organizing Committee Executive Director Jorge Sosa confirmed this number shortly before press time.
The man who had surgery to his hand remained in stable condition at the Río Piedras Medical Center Saturday. Another was hospitalized at the Mayaguez Medical Center with a back injury. At press time, no names had been released.
Police units, local and state emergency vehicles and paramedics quickly responded to the alert and within minutes had the situation under control.
A group of 190 students who were to participate in the inauguration ceremonies of the Games were unhurt, acting Education Secretary Jesús Rivera Sánchez confirmed.
The Camp 2010 youngsters were on their way to the Central American Stadium when the winds knocked over a set of stage lights causing severe damage and pandemonium. After the incident, they were rushed back to the Beaux Arts Training Center in Aguadilla, where they are currently staying.
“We want parents to know that their children are being taken care of,” said Rivera Sánchez.
Henry Neumann, Secretary of Sports and Recreation spoke to the press for Gov. Fortuño.
“He called me the moment he heard the news (approximately 12:45 p.m.),” said Neumann. “The first thing he asked was about injuries. He wanted to take a chopper and fly here, but security officials persuaded him against it. He told me to put all the resources of the state government at the disposal of the OC.”
Everything seemed ready for the torch to be lighted as scheduled, when at 12:30 p.m., a strong wind current associated with a tropical wave suddenly hit this northwestern coast, violently uprooting tents, poles and lighting equipment in its path. When it was all over, around 12:54, the Central American Stadium, site of the opening ceremonies, had suffered enough damages to force a postponement, now scheduled for today at 5 p.m.
“It came out of nowhere,” said José Matos, a local consultant who witnessed the event. “I saw people trying to run but they couldn’t because of the intense wind. I was standing on the boulevard and saw tents turn over like paper airplanes. A two-story ladder fell nearby. Everything was violent.”
Wind gusted up to 75 mph in constant currents, according to Israel Matos, director of the National Weather Service in San Juan.
Few major incidents reported
Although the mood at CAC headquarters was noticeably sober, spirits were buoyed by the relatively low number of major incidents reported. “It has not been an easy day by any stretch. We are sorry to report the casualties but at the same time, glad that it wasn’t more severe,” said Perez in an impromptu news conference at the Mayagüez UPR campus.
Infrastructure damage is still being evaluated. But early estimates point toward an excess of $1 to 1.5 million. The stadium was hit particularly hard, especially the tarps and light sets that would have illuminated the arena later on. The adjacent boulevard also received part of the brunt of the wind.
Tourists were not immune to the effects of this atmospheric disturbance.
“I was climbing out of my taxi and ready to go to the boulevard park to lie low until the inaugural ceremony when the winds hit me in the face,” said Carlota Alribaro, a Panamanian law student on her first trip to the island. “They told me about hurricane season, but no one told me about tornadoes,” she said with a guffaw. “And this pattern sure looked like one.”
While Alribaro seemed poised in the aftermath, other foreign visitors did not looked particularly thrilled. “We saw the sign rushing towards us. It was terrifying,” added Jose Valdemar, a 33-year-old businessman from Colombia, on his third visit to Puerto Rico. “I had been here before, but not to the west coast. My wife and I thought it would be a great vacation to be at the Games, but now I’m not so sure we plan to stay.”
Both tourists concurred that what they had been told was a waterspout was an impressive phenonemon.
“I haven’t seen anything like that in Bogota or any place I have traveled to so far. Very unusual,” added Valdemar.
“I have seen tornadoes in Texas, where I lived for a year, and this looked like one,” said Alribaro.
“The stadium will take a few hours to clean up. The same goes for the boardwalk. There was also an overturned tent in Hormigueros, at the gymnastics facility. But this was minor. We will have everything ready by tomorrow morning,” said Financing for Infrastructure President Humberto Marrero.
OC held a drill for his type of fast rising, wind currents just a few weeks ago, according to Sosa. “The police have been drilling us in all kinds of emergencies and this particular type was practiced in June. And although I feel sympathy for the injured and their families, we are also happy to see the prompt response of all units according to our plan,” he said.