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Town submerged underwater for a quarter century, man lives alone amongst its ruins

A sense of helplessness filled the air as I heard the screams and saw the tears. The 1,500 inhabitants of Epecuén took whatever they could. I watched as they tried to find their way out holding their belongings.

Interview Subject
Pablo Novak, 92, grew up in Epecuén and can recall when the town was overrun with flood waters. He returned to his childhood home after it reemerged from the water years later and became its sole inhabitant. In January 2020 he was named a Cultural and Tourist Ambassador of the district. He has 10 children including three sons and seven daughters, 21 grandchildren, and seven great grandchildren. He rides his bicycle to closest town for supplies and food but otherwise lives alone amongst the ruins and greets tourists and photographers.
Background Information
Epecuén is located 10 kilometers from Carhué, the closest inhabited town, and 530 kilometers from the Capital of Argentina. On November 6, 1985, a rare weather event broke a dam and overran a dike protecting the town. The water rose through the village and all 1,500 inhabitants had to flee. Sixteen hotels, 150 lodgings, 50 shops, and hundreds of homes disappeared and remained submerged under water for over a quarter century.
 
The water receded in 2009 and Epecuén has become a tourist attraction again, but for an entirely different reason. People say due to the large amount of salt and minerals in the region’s waters, the lagoon has favorable effects on skin problems like psoriasis and diseases such as arthritis and others.

EPECUÉN, Argentina ꟷ The elite of Argentina once visited [my childhood] village of Epecuén. They claimed the waters of the lagoon boasted medicinal properties comparable to the Dead Sea. Popular chronicles assured visitors if they entered the water with a cane, they would emerge healed.

Thousands of people visited from all over the country, until the day tragedy unleashed. I remember it clearly. On November 10, 1985, a few days after the start of the strong summer season, an embankment collapsed. [The waters from the Laguna Epecuén flooded the village rapidly, submerging the entire town for over 25 years.]

A quarter century later, the water level began to drop and recede. It revealed a place of dyed white, ruins similar to a war zone, and the ghosts of the past. I could not allow such a place to be left alone and forgotten.

Townspeople of Epecuén flee frantically as waters rush over their homes

I witnessed the birth, glory, agony, death, and resurrection of my beloved Villa Epecuén.

As a young man, my father left his birthplace of Odesa, Ukraine to escape harsh military service. He traveled for two years as a stowaway to get to Argentina where he met my mother, Paulina Olsman. A hard-working family, I vividly recall selling eggs as a small child.

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Over time, I learned my father’s trade and helped build bricks. Looking around the town today, amidst the rubble of infrastructure, Novak bricks lay everywhere. In 1978, the Hydraulic Directorate built a horseshoe embankment to protect the Villa. The five-meter-high artificial barrier allowed us to work for many seasons.

It seemed to address a problem. In our sector, water came in but had no way out. On that fateful day in November 1985, tragedy unleashed. The embankment collapsed and hypersaline water advanced toward us in a threatening manner. Chaos ensued.

We had no controlled evacuation plan and people began running with no direction.  A sense of helplessness filled the air as I heard the screams and saw the tears. The 1,500 inhabitants of Epecuén took whatever they could. I watched as they tried to find their way out holding their belongings.

Man returns to the ruins of his childhood home, watches a new type of tourism emerge

In 16 days, entire families abandoned everything they had, looking on helplessly as the waters – once our sustenance and joy – became an enemy impossible to fight.

[When the waters receded and Epecuén reemerged more than 25 years later] I looked on with nostalgia. My treasured memories reminded me of my love for my hometown. I could not leave it’s warmth and beauty behind, so I decided to return.

I settled down about 600 meters from the welcome gate to the ruins. Once there, I rode my bicycle to Carahué to stock up on food and other items while enjoying the sun and the trails. Twice I had to leave Epecuén – once after an accident that left me hospitalized and then during the worst of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

I am once again living alone in my beloved hometown. Slowly, the ruins attracted the attention of photographers and tourists. They felt fascinated by its history and unique landscapes. Today, Villa Epecuén serves as a tourist destination. I have been here to witness the ride. This time, it gained popularity not for its miraculous waters and beauty, but for its past and the remains of its ruins.

Photos of Epecuén courtesy of Jaime Andrés Olivos. Photos of Pablo courtesy of Nai Pronsati.

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In Chile (his native country), he obtained a degree in Socio-Economic Sciences. He currently lives in Buenos Aires (Argentina), where he specializes in photojournalism. As a freelance, he publishes in different national media and collaborates for some international press agencies.