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Originally published April 29, 2011 at 8:02 PM | Page modified April 29, 2011 at 8:52 PM

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Rains hurt Colombia's flower crops as Mother's Day nears

Some of the heaviest rains in Colombia's history have killed at least 418 people, damaged or destroyed 140,000 homes and affected three million people over the past several months.

McClatchy Newspapers

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Some of the heaviest rains in Colombia's history have killed at least 418 people, damaged or destroyed 140,000 homes and affected three million people over the past several months.

Now the country's brutal weather could have an additional economic kick as the country misses out on a Mother's Day export boom.

Colombia's National Association of Flower Exporters said some of the country's prime flower-farming areas were among the hardest-hit by storms that have intensified over the past two weeks.

While the association is still trying to tally the damage, some farms — particularly in the savanna north of the capital — have been totally wiped out.

"On an individual basis, there are some dramatic cases, with total losses and farms that are completely underwater," said Augusto Solano Mejia, the association's president. "But it's impossible to generalize. We still don't know how many acres were affected. But we're trying to resolve these issues and help producers ship their holiday orders."

Solano estimated the damage could range from 5 to 15 percent of national production.

The agricultural assistance program for the municipality of Chia — one of the nation's major flower-growing areas — said it estimated 60 percent of the region's farms had been damaged.

The hit comes as growers were preparing shipments for Mother's Day on May 8 — when a quarter of all flower sales take place in the United States, according to the Society of American Florists.

Colombia is the United States' top flower exporter, supplying 65 percent of all the country's fresh-cut flowers. And Miami handles 89 percent of all flower imports that come into the United States.

At Don Eusebio Flowers in Chia, the 50-acre farm has been using three boats to ferry workers into the installations and flowers out, after they were surrounded by several feet of water last week.

"This has been a logistical headache, but we haven't missed any of our orders," said General Manager Luis Fernando Nieto. "For some of our workers, particularly the older ones, this is the first time they've ever been in a boat."

The rains couldn't come at a worse time. Colombian growers were already reeling from a weak dollar, which makes flowers more expensive, and the U.S. decision in February to allow trade preferences to expire. As a result, Colombian flowers are slapped with a 6.8 percent tariff.

"This has really been a perfect storm for flower growers," said Jose Azout, the president of Alexandra Farms, a 20-acre operation in Chia that exports about half its production to the United States through Miami. "There are not going to be many flowers for Mother's Day in the United States this year."

Christine Boldt, the executive vice president of the Association of Flower Importers of Florida, said that as damage reports come in from Colombia, some Miami companies are scrambling for alternatives. But the very nature of the Mother's Day should help forestall a major crisis.

"If during Valentine's Day, the red-rose crop is affected, it's a disaster for the holiday," she said. "Mother's Day is not tied to one product, so you can substitute something else. ... A mother is not going to be upset."

But consumers may have something to be grumpy about. Some florists say they are seeing a dearth of some varieties and price-spikes in others.

"Prices of roses and peonies have gone up. Things we normally get this time of year we're not getting," said Mark Pappas of Cypress Gardens Florist in Miami Shores. "Usually, after Mother's Day, the prices go down. But this year, that may not be the case."

Colombia's weather woes aren't likely to dissipate anytime soon.

The national meteorological institute, or Ideam, said the nation can expect heavy rains through June as the country's traditional rainy season is being augmented by the La Niña weather phenomenon.

"Statistically, this has been the strongest rainy season the country has ever seen," said Ideam spokeswoman Marcela Sierra. "We have never faced anything like this, and we've never seen this kind of damage."

The cold equatorial waters of La Niña began in the middle of last year, drenching the Andes and sparking floods throughout the region, including Ecuador and Peru — also flower exporters. The phenomenon is expected to taper off in a few months, Sierra said.

The toll on farmers has been severe. The Ministry of Agriculture estimates that some 2.6 million acres have been affected in 24 out of the nation's 32 departments. In addition, 115,000 head of cattle have died, and 1.4 million have had to be relocated.

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