Thursday 17 August 2017

Hundreds still missing as death toll from Colombia mudslides hits 210

Soldiers help to evacuate locals following mudslides caused by heavy rains in Mocoa, in southern Colombia. Photo: AFP/Getty
Soldiers help to evacuate locals following mudslides caused by heavy rains in Mocoa, in southern Colombia. Photo: AFP/Getty

Alba Tobella

Townspeople desperately searched their ruined homes and the local hospital for loved ones after a torrent of water, mud and debris swept through a city in southern Colombia, causing more than 200 deaths, many of them children.

Hundreds more are missing and injured.

Neighbourhoods were left strewn with rocks, wooden planks, tree limbs and brown muck after heavy rain caused the three rivers that surround Mocoa to rise up and surge through the city of 40,000 Friday night and early on Saturday as people slept. The deluge smashed houses, tore trees out by the roots and washed cars and trucks away.

Search-and-rescue teams combed through the debris and helped people who had been desperately clawing at huge mounds of mud by hand. Many had little left to search.

"People went to their houses and found nothing but the floor," Gilma Diaz, a 42-year-old woman from another town who came to search for a cousin, said.

President Juan Manuel Santos, who visited Mocoa for a second straight day yesterday, declared the area in the province of Putumayo a disaster zone and said the death toll stood at 210. But that was all but certain to rise because authorities said there were more than 200 injured, some in critical condition, and more than 200 others unaccounted for.

Dozens stood in the door of a hospital, hoping for news of family members who were not on the list of those confirmed dead or injured. Others frantically knocked on relatives' doors, hoping to find information about their loved ones.

The disaster seemed to hit young people particularly hard. Mr Santos said more than 40 of the dead identified so far were under 18, perhaps because youngsters were already in bed when the floodwaters struck.

Maria Cordoba, a 52-year-old resident who was trying to wash her belongings in a river, said two of her nephews, aged six and 11, were killed when their house was destroyed. "The mother as well was totally beaten up" but managed to save her 18-month-old baby, she said.

A rescue worker in an orange jumpsuit emerged from one search area with the body of an infant wrapped in a towel. Not far away, Abelardo Solarte, a 48-year-old resident of Mocoa, held a child's shoe as he helped clear debris.

"You have no idea how many kids there are around here," Mr Solarte said.

Mr Santos said the avalanche of water and debris also knocked out power in half of the province.

Irish Independent

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