International World

Rescuers, locals dig for Colombia flood victims, at least 210 die

Image: A woman cries after identifying her daughter’s body after flooding and mudslides caused by heavy rains in Villagarzon, Colombia April 2, 2017. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

By Jaime Saldarriaga

MOCOA, Colombia (Reuters) – Families and rescuers searched desperately on Sunday through mud-plastered rubble for victims of flooding and landslides in Colombia that have killed at least 210 people, injured hundreds and devastated entire neighborhoods.

Several rivers burst their banks near the southwestern city of Mocoa in the early hours of Saturday, sending water, mud and debris crashing down streets and into houses as people slept.

Volunteers and firefighters tended to 82 bodies downstream in the town of Villagarzon and said many corpses were still caught in debris.

“We had to recover them ourselves. We think we’ll find more,” Villagarzon Mayor Jhon Ever Calderon told Reuters, adding that the town had no coffins or sanitary storage.

Many families in Mocoa stayed up through the night to search in the debris, despite lack of electricity in the city.

“I need to know where they are, if they are injured or where to find them,” sobbed Maria Lilia Tisoy, 37, looking for her two daughters, one pregnant, and a 4-year-old granddaughter in the rubble.

“If they are dead, please God deliver them to me.”

President Juan Manuel Santos made a second visit to the area on Sunday. He said water and energy services would be restored as soon as possible.

Santos blamed climate change for the disaster, saying Mocoa had received one-third of its usual monthly rain in just one night, causing the rivers to burst their banks.

There was disagreement over the death toll. The army said on Saturday the death toll was 254, but Santos gave a lower toll of 210 killed and 203 injured. The department of legal medicine said it had logged 248 bodies.

Disaster officials said 600 people were staying in emergency housing and social services had helped 10 lost children find their parents.

The disaster came after deadly flooding in Peru killed more than 100 people and destroyed infrastructure.

Families of the dead will receive about $6,400 in aid and the government will cover hospital and funeral costs.

Even in a country where heavy rains, a mountainous landscape and informal construction combine to make landslides a common occurrence, the scale of the Mocoa disaster was daunting compared to recent tragedies, including a 2015 landslide that killed nearly 100 people.

Colombia’s deadliest landslide, the 1985 Armero disaster, left more than 20,000 dead.

Santos urged Colombians to take precautions against flooding and continued rains.

The president also thanked China and the Inter-American Development Bank for donating $1 million and $200,000 toward relief efforts respectively.

(Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb, Nelson Bocangra and Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Sandra Maler)

Copyright 2017 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.

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