Search for survivors goes on as Colombia death toll rises

Our Foreign Staff

A grim search for the missing continued yesterday in southern Colombia after surging rivers sent an avalanche of floodwater, mud and debris through a small city, killing at least 200 people and leaving many more injured and homeless. 

People prised up piles of rocks and wooden planks that entombed homes. 

Streets were covered in thick sand, mud and tree limbs from the rivers and rainforest that surround Mocoa, in the mountainous region along Colombia’s southern border. 

Soldiers search for victims in the Colombian city of Mocoa Credit: AFP

There was little drinking water and no power, which forced authorities to suspend the search and rescue effort during the night. 

President Juan Manuel Santos, who travelled to Putumayo state's capital Mocoa for a second straight day on Sunday, declared the area 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.

A soldier carries a woman on his back during an evacuation Credit: Colombian Army

Bodies were being placed in a temporary morgue where three teams of medical examiners were working around the clock to identify them. 

Authorities and residents spent Saturday tending to victims, trying to find homes on streets reduced to rubble and engaged in a search to find loved ones. 

Rescuers carry a woman to safety Credit: AFP

Eduardo Vargas, 29, was asleep with his wife and seven-month-old baby when he was woken by neighbours banging on his door. He and his family fled up a small mountain. “There was no time for anything,” he said. 

Mr Vargas and his family huddled with about two dozen other residents as rocks, trees and wooden planks ripped through their neighbourhood below. They waited until daylight, when members of the military helped them down. When he reached the site of his home, nothing remained. “Thank God we have our lives,” he said. 

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.

Colombia landslide

The air force transported 19 patients to a city farther north and said 20 more would be evacuated soon. Medicine and surgical supplies were being sent to the city as the regional hospital struggled to cope. 

Herman Granados, an anaesthetist, said he had worked throughout the night and that the hospital was running out of blood. Some hospital workers came to help even though their own relations remained missing. “Under the mud I am sure there are many more,” Dr Granados said. 

Soldiers take away a body following mudslides caused by heavy rains in Mocoa Credit: AFP

Mr Santos blamed climate change for triggering the avalanche, saying that the accumulated rainfall in one night was almost half the amount Mocoa normally received in March. With the rainy season in much of Colombia just beginning, the president said the authorities needed to redouble their efforts to prevent a similar tragedy. 

Even in a country where heavy rains, a mountainous landscape and informal construction of homes combine to make mud and landslides a common occurrence, the scale of the Mocoa disaster was daunting compared to recent tragedies, like a 2015 landslide that killed nearly 80 people in Salgar, Antioquia. 

Colombia's deadliest landslide, the 1985 Armero disaster, left more than 20,000 dead.

En sobrevuelo por Mocoa, esto fue lo que encontraron el Pte @JuanManSantos acompañado de @mindefensa Villegas pic.twitter.com/D65ty4OkoL

— Mindefensa Colombia (@mindefensa) April 1, 2017

Photos posted on Twitter by the air force showed neighbourhood streets filled with mud and damaged houses, while videos on social media showed residents searching for survivors in the debris and struggling to move through waist-high water during the night.

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes