Desperate search for Colombian flood survivors; death toll reaches 207

Residents and rescuers clawed through a sea of mud and debris Sunday in a desperate search for survivors in the Colombian city of Mocoa, one day after surging rivers overwhelmed the city, killing at least 207 people and injuring 200 more.

Scores of people remained missing amid the destruction, Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos said. He said he was leading the effort to restore water service and power to the devastated area.

"MOCOA will be better than before," Santos said on Twitter, adding that water was being trucked in for residents and emergency workers.

Sandra Valenzuela, planning and development director for the World Wildlife Fund in Colombia, said she was relieved to learn that five staffers and 13 consultants survived the tragedy.

"Right now everyone is focused on rescuing as many people as they can," Valenzuela told USA TODAY. "Then we have weeks or months of reconstruction ahead."

The tragedy was triggered by a deluge that dumped 5 inches of rain on the region Friday night, about half the amount of rain the region normally gets for the entire month of March, Santos said. Early Saturday, the Mocoa River and its tributaries overwhelmed their banks. Santos declared a state of emergency for Mocoa, a city of about 40,000 located near the southern border with Ecuador.

He warned that the rainy season could bring more flooding and devastation to the area. Valenzuela agreed, noting that the normally dry season had been rainy.

"If we have two seasons of rain in a row in the mountains, we could see bigger landslides and more damage," she said.

Carlos Iván Márquez Pérez, director of the National Disaster Risk Management Unit, said more than 1,300 soldiers, police and emergency officials using helicopters, planes, boats and all-terrain vehicles "will work without stopping" to rescue survivors.

Street vendor Marta Ceballos told the Agence France-Presse she survived but is haunted by the memory.

"To see how some people screamed, and others cried, ran, tried to flee in cars, on motorcycles, and how they were trapped in the mud. It's all too, too difficult," she said.

Pope Francis, speaking in the Italian town of Carpi, said he was "profoundly saddened" by the tragedy and was praying for the victims and those grieving the loss of their loved ones.

The torrential rains triggered what the Colombian army called an "avalanche" of muddy and debris-strewn water local rivers and tributaries. City streets soon filled with rushing water that crushed homes, pulled up trees from their roots and whisked away cars and trucks. Mocoa Mayor Jose Antonio Castro said houses in 17 neighborhoods were washed away.

Oscar Londono told the Associated Press he walked through mud-strewn streets to the neighborhood where his wife’s parents live. It was destroyed, but rescue workers sent him toward a nearby mountain, where he found his relatives camped with other survivors.

“To know they were alive,” he said, “it was a reunion of tears.”

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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