The typical winter rains fueled unusually strong El Ni�o weather pattern have lashed Colombia’ Caribbean coast over the past month leaving hundreds dead, thousands homeless and left the much of the South American country’s infrastructure crippled.

Graphic: C.J. Schexnayder
Breach led to widespread flooding on coastal plain.

The Colombian branch of the Red Cross set the death toll at 281 and estimate that a total of 2.2 million people in the country have so far been affected by the rains, floods and landslides. The Colombian government puts the damage estimate at more than $5.2 billion to date.

Forecasters warn that the heavy rains are expected to continue through February.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which provides military and construction support for Central and South America, dispatched two engineers from Mobile District to Colombia on Dec. 16 to help provide technical assistance in the wake of a massive levee breech on the Dique Canal in the Atlantico department.

The 70-mile long waterway connects Colombia’s largest river, the Magdelena, and the Bay of Cartegena, one of the country’s key Caribbean ports. A break in the waterway’s levee appeared on appeared on Nov. 30 and efforts by the local government as well as the army proved unsuccessful.

The breach was 210 meters wide as of Dec. 17 with water flow of 1,450 cubic meters per second, Corps officials said. Between 400 million and 800 million cubic meters of water has escaped the canal to inundate approximately 400 square miles.

Eight nearby villages have been flooding, in one, Campo de la Cruz, approximately 18,000 residents have been left homeless. Officials from the department, or state, estimated damage from the breach to be in excess of $312 million. The group, in conjunction with U.S. Army Corps experts stationed in the region, is expected to present an engineering assessment through the U.S. Agency for International Development by the end of the month.