- At least 250 dead after heavy mudslides in the Colombian city of Mocoa
- At least 400 injuries and 200 missing
- Around 1,100 soldiers and police involved in rescue effort
- President Juan Manuel Santos declared a state of emergency in the region
- One of the worst disasters in country’s recent history
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — At least 250 people are dead after floodwaters surged through the Colombian city of Mocoa on Saturday night, though authorities expect the death toll to rise as rescue efforts continue.
Around 1,100 soldiers and police are involved in the rescue effort, the army said in a statement according to ITV. At least 400 people are injured and 200 people are still missing, the statement added.
Heavy rains caused three rivers to overflow, sending a wall of water through the city near the Ecuador border around midnight, sweeping away homes, cars, and trees while residents slept in their beds.
President Juan Manuel Santos travelled to Mocoa and declared a state of emergency in the region. He promised assistance to the victims in Mocoa via Twitter.
“They are going to work 24 hours a day,” said Carlos Valdes, director of the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Science, the agency leading the medical team working to identify the deceased.
However, authorities were forced to suspend the search Saturday night, with no electricity to light Mocoa.
Authorities and residents in the city tucked between mountains along Colombia’s southern border spent Saturday tending to victims, trying to find homes on streets reduced to masses of rubble and engaged in a desperate search to locate loved one who disappeared in the dark of night.
Eduardo Vargas, 29, was asleep with his wife and 7-month-old baby when he was awoken by the sound of neighbors banging on his door. He quickly grabbed his family and fled up a small mountain amid the cries of people in panic.
“There was no time for anything,” he said.
Vargas and his family huddled with about two dozen other residents as rocks, trees and wooden planks ripped through their neighborhood below. They waited there until daylight, when members of the military helped them down.
When he reached the site of his home Saturday, nothing his family left behind remained.
“Thank God we have our lives,” he said.
The Air Force transported 19 patients to a city further north and said 20 more would be evacuated soon. Medicine and surgical supplies were being sent to the city as the area’s regional hospital struggled to cope with the magnitude of the crisis.
Herman Granados, an anesthesiologist, said he worked throughout the night on victims and that the hospital doesn’t have a blood bank large enough to deal with the number of patients and was quickly running out of its supply.
Some of the hospital workers came to help even while there are own relatives remained missing.
“Under the mud,” Granados said, “I am sure there are many more.”
Santos blamed climate change for triggering the avalanche, saying that the accumulated rainfall in one night was almost half the amount Mocoa normally receives in the entire month of March. With the rainy season in much of Colombia just beginning, he said local and national authorities need to redouble their efforts to prevent a similar tragedy.
The crisis is likely to be remembered as one of the worst natural disasters in recent Colombian history, though the Andean nation has experienced even more destructive environmental catastrophes. Nearly 25,000 people were killed in 1985 after the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted and triggered a deluge of mud and debris that buried the town of Armero.
As rescuers shifted through debris, many residents in Mocoa were conducting their own searches for lost loved one.
Oscar Londono tried in vain throughout the night to reach his wife’s parents, whose home is right along one of the flooded rivers. He decided it was too dangerous to try to reach them in the dark. So he called over and over by phone but got no answer.
Once the sun began to rise he started walking toward their house but found all the streets he usually takes missing. As he tried to orient himself he came across the body of a young woman dressed in a mini-skirt and black blouse.
He checked her pulse but could not find one.
“There were bodies all over,” he said.
When he finally reached the neighborhood where his in-laws live he found “just mud and rocks.” Rescue workers with the military-oriented him toward the mountain, where he found his relatives camped with other survivors.
“To know they were alive,” he said, “it was a reunion of tears.”
Associated Press writers Cesar Garcia and Alba Tobella in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.