Rescue teams scramble to find survivors after heavy rains in Putumayo province cause mud, rocks and gushing waters to engulf city of Mocoa
Colombian rescuers have been searching frantically for hundreds of missing people after the southern city of Mocoa was engulfed on Saturday by a huge landslide of mud, rocks and gushing waters that swept away homes and cars and killed more than 20 people.
The Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, arrived in Mocoa on Sunday to survey the crisis. Officials from the national disaster agency had counted 210 dead by Sunday morning, with 62 children among the victims. The government later revised the death toll up to 254.. A further 203 people were injured, many in a critical condition.
A spokesman for the local power utility said it could take two weeks to restore energy in the area. Without power, gas or telephone service and with little clean water, about 600 survivors spent Sunday in makeshift shelters, on high alert for any further rainfall that could trigger another mudslide.
Lists of children who could not find their parents circulated on social media to try to reunite families, while about 1,100 soldiers and police arrived to help the relief effort.
The disaster struck in the early hours of Saturday when the rushing waters of the Mocoa river and its tributaries converged on the capital of Putumayo province, catching many people by surprise as they slept.
As the waters rose, one woman identified as Laura Montoya called an emergency helpline from the roof of her house. “We are at risk of dying,” she said, according to an account from the president’s office. “The water has filled up half the house.”
One policeman, named as 24-year-old Deciderio Ospina, was killed as he responded to calls for help from residents whose homes were being flooded. Seeing the oncoming mudslide from his patrol truck, he leapt from the vehicle, according to a police report. His body was found 20km away, along with another 20 victims.
“We have a huge challenge to find the missing,” said the director of Colombia’s disaster agency, Carlos Iván Márquez, adding that 400 rescuers were scouring the riversides for victims and survivors while helicopters searched from the air.
One unidentified woman interviewed by government television said she had lost 11 family members in the mudslide, including her mother. Five of her loved ones had been identified in the morgue and the other six were still missing. “I feel like the world is going to end,” she said.
More than 1,000 emergency personnel, including soldiers and local police were deployed to help the rescue effort and to keep order. Some shops were looted overnight on Saturday by survivors searching for water.
Even as the search for survivors and victims continued, Santos set his sights on rebuilding the area. “Today the reconstruction begins,” he said. “May Mocoa be better than before.”
On Saturday, Santos blamed the tragedy on climate change, saying that the accumulated rainfall in one night was almost half the amount Mocoa normally receives in the entire month of March.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis said he was “profoundly saddened” by the disaster, which struck the town of 40,000 with little warning after days of torrential rain. “I pray for the victims and want to assure those who weep for the missing of my closeness to them,” the pontiff said in a statement.
As official rescue efforts continued, residents searched for missing relatives on their own. Early on Sunday, Oscar Londono tried to reach his in-laws’ house but became disoriented when he found that the streets had disappeared. “There were bodies all over,” he told the Associated Press.
Rescue workers with the military helped him find his relatives, who were camped with other survivors.
The governor of Putumayo, Sorrel Aroca, told Caracol Radio that the local hospital was overwhelmed by the number of injured, and medicine and surgical supplies were being sent to the city.
Herman Granados, an anaesthesiologist, told reporters he worked throughout the night. “Under the mud, I am sure there are many more,” he said.
The Mocoa mudslide is the deadliest in a wave of flood-related disasters in South America in recent months. Floods and mudslides since the start of the year in Peru have left 101 people dead. In Ecuador, 21 people have died in flooding.
A landslide in Colombia’s rural south-west in November killed nine people, and another in October killed 10 people in the north of the country.
In 1985 nearly 25,000 people were killed after the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted, triggering a torrent of mud and debris that buried the town of Armero.