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A Gentler Side Of El Niño

In the Atacama Desert in far northern Chile, it rains so infrequently that no one had been able to remember the last time a drop of rain fell. Vegetation and wildlife usually shrivels under an unrelenting sun. But then came El Niño.

While El Niño's ire has walloped other parts of the world with droughts, blizzards, and unrelenting rain, in the Atacama Desert it has had a milder effect. On normally parched, barren terrain, an array of wildflowers has bloomed, and a dust bowl has been turned into a green carpet with splashes of color.

El Niño has given the desert's southern edge a soaking. And people in Chile are calling it a miracle.

"Thanks to God, the rain we had this year, the whole panorama of this region changed," said Ana Maria Lafuente, a woman from one of the desert's towns. "We have flowers, insects, a whole circle of life that we didn't even know could be produced in this region."

Lafuente is a self-proclaimed child of the desert. Now she calls herself a flower child as well.

As Chile's summer months set in, the flowers have begun to die and the seeds are falling to the ground, no doubt to lay dormant for years until the next rains come. "All the people who come here realize this is a marvelous miracle, unique in all the world," Lafuente said.

But even among this "marvelous miracle," there's a downside to El Niño's beauty. This desert explosion of vegetation has also led to an explosion of rodents, especially in the heavily wooded south.

"El Niño is a serious problem for us, yes," said Dr. Ingrid Heitman, chief of microbiology at Chile's Institute of Public Health. "The population of rodents has really increased. And this is what the people there were telling us: At nighttime they could get up and really step on them."

The rodents have also brought disease, worst of all, the deadly Hantavirus. Hantavirus carried through the air and on the dust of dried rodent droppings. It viciously attacks the respiratory system and can kill in days if not treated immediately.

"We had sort of one case here, one case there," Heitman said. "Until this winter. And this winter, it really exploded."

Now doctors in the United States fear that Chile's hantavirus crisis could foretell a similar crisis in the U.S, just as Chile's brutal El Niño winter could mean rough months ahead for North America.

Since 1993, the virus has killed dozens in the U.S., mostly in the desert Southwest, the region most like the Atacama. Alarmingly, virus-carrying rodents already have been found in New Mexico. And American scientists are racing to trak and control the killer as El Niño storms north.

Chile still has two months before El Niño and the diseases it spawns retreat. By then, the flowers will have faded. Just the memories and the pain will linger.

Written by CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker. ©1998, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved

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