Rescuers clawed through mud and timber searching for survivors of a mudslide in southern Colombia that killed 262 people, including 43 children, and left relatives desperately seeking loved ones.
Survivors told of scrambling onto roofs or hanging onto trees yesterday as a sea of mud, boulders and debris engulfed the village of Mocoa late Friday. Some watched as their children and relatives were swept helplessly away. Among them was Ercy Lopez, 39, who was left hanging to a tree after the deluge tore away her home.
Lying on a mattress in a shelter for survivors, she said people were still searching for her 22-year-old daughter Diana Vanesa.
“The hopes of finding her alive are slim now,” she said.
Debris was everywhere in the remote Amazon town: buried cars, uprooted trees, children’s toys and odd shoes sticking up out of the mud. Survivors gathered at the local hospital and at the cemetery to search for family members and friends. The National Disaster Risk Management Unit raised the death toll to 262 on Monday. Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos earlier said that at least 43 children were among the dead.
“I regret to announce that the number of dead continues to rise,” Santos said.
The Red Cross counted a further 262 people injured and 220 missing.
Desperate relatives continued to search for missing children. Yulieth Rosero had just buried her sister, but was holding out hope of finding her seven-year-old nephew, Juan David Rueda.
“I found his little brother, William. He’s alive. He’s in shock, injured and has no clothes, but he’s OK,” said Rosero, 23.
Santos has flown into the disaster zone for three straight days to oversee the relief effort. He declared an economic emergency Monday to free up relief funds, amplifying the public health and safety emergency he had already declared.
Hundreds of rescuers were working at the scene of the disaster, using mechanical diggers in the search. Locals said it was never safe to live so close to the three rivers that overflowed after days of torrential rain.
Wilson Chilito, 22, said he scrambled onto the roof of a house from where he watched “people, fridges and houses” being swept away. He lost his sister, mother-in-law and at least two other relatives.
“This was foreseen for a long time,” he told AFP as he packed up belongings from his home, his boots full of mud.
Founded in 1563, “the town has about 10 rivers running through it,” said Mocoa’s Mayor Jose Antonio Castro, quoted by newspaper El Espectador.
“That means it is not a place where a town should be located.”
Carlos Acosta survived by clinging to a tree branch.
“I was dying due to a lack of air — so what did I do? I stuck my finger in my mouth and vomited a lot of mud,” Acosta, 25, told AFP.
“I sneezed out mud until I could breathe again.”
He could not save his three-year-old son, Camilo, however. The two were swept away together. But Acosta was knocked unconscious, and when he woke up the child was gone.
Residents began burying their loved ones as the identified bodies were returned. A mass funeral was held at a local cemetery, where workers toiled to dig enough holes for the piles of coffins.
Santos said the mudslide destroyed a local aqueduct and knocked out power to much of the surrounding department. He said four emergency water treatment plants would be set up to avoid epidemics of diseases such as cholera.
Most of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in the town of 40,000 are poor and populated with people uprooted during Colombia’s five-decade-long civil war.
The Pacific northwest of South America has been hit hard by recent floods and mudslides, with scores killed in Peru and Ecuador. Colombia’s worst ever disaster was a volcanic eruption in 1985 that triggered a landslide and destroyed the city of Armero, killing 25,000 people.