More than 270 dead in Colombia mudslides

Lissy DE ABREU
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Members of Colombian civil defense teams are continuing a search for victims of the Mocoa mudslide

The Colombian government declared a state of economic emergency in the town of Mocoa in southern Colombia, after mudslides left more than 270 people dead, including 43 children.

"We have the toll of the people who have unfortunately died," said President Juan Manuel Santos, as he revisited the scene of Friday's disaster.

"The latest is 273 people died and 262 are injured," he said. Earlier he said that at least 43 children were among the dead.

Santos was to spend the night at a nearby military base and on Tuesday would continue coordinating the emergency response.

The president said reconstruction would begin, dismissing risks of further mudslides, but he warned that the country faces rainy weather until June.

Santos has flown into the disaster zone for three straight days to oversee the relief effort. He declared an economic emergency Monday to free up relief funds, amplifying the public health and safety emergency he had already declared.

The mudslides occurred Friday after heavy rains caused three rivers to overflow, spewing earth, rocks and tree debris over the area.

Most of the hardest-hit neighborhoods are poor and populated with people uprooted during Colombia's five-decade-long civil war.

Mocoa was home to 70,000 people, according to Sorrel Aroca, the governor of Putumayo department. The Red Cross estimated about 45,000 people in Mocoa were affected by the mudslides.

Hopes of finding survivors were fading Monday as some 200 people remained missing.

Rescuers clawed through mud and timber as relatives desperately sought loved ones.

- People, houses swept away -

Survivors told of scrambling onto roofs or hanging onto trees as a sea of mud, boulders and debris engulfed Mocoa late Friday.

Some watched as their children and relatives were swept away.

Among them was Ercy Lopez, 39, who was left hanging on a tree after the deluge tore away her home.

Lying on a mattress in a shelter for survivors, she said people were still searching for her 22-year-old daughter Diana Vanesa.

"The hopes of finding her alive are slim now," she said.

Debris was everywhere in the remote Amazon town: buried cars, uprooted trees, children's toys and odd shoes sticking up out of the mud.

Survivors gathered at the local hospital and at the cemetery to search for family members and friends.

Yulieth Rosero had just buried her sister, but was holding out hope of finding her seven-year-old nephew, Juan David Rueda.

"I found his little brother, William. He's alive. He's in shock, injured and has no clothes, but he's OK," said Rosero, 23.

Hundreds of rescuers were working at the scene of the disaster, using mechanical diggers in the search.

Locals said it was never safe to live so close to the three rivers that overflowed after days of torrential rain.

Wilson Chilito, 22, said he scrambled onto the roof of a house from where he watched "people, fridges and houses" being swept away.

He lost his sister, mother-in-law and at least two other relatives.

"This was foreseen for a long time," he told AFP as he packed up belongings from his home, his boots full of mud.

Founded in 1563, "the town has about 10 rivers running through it," said Mocoa Mayor Jose Antonio Castro, quoted by newspaper El Espectador.

"That means it is not a place where a town should be located."

- Vomiting mud -

Carlos Acosta had survived by clinging to a tree branch.

"I was dying due to a lack of air -- so what did I do? I stuck my finger in my mouth and vomited a lot of mud," Acosta, 25, told AFP.

"I sneezed out mud until I could breathe again."

He could not save his three-year-old son, Camilo, however.

The two were swept away together. But Acosta was knocked unconscious, and when he woke up the child was gone.

Residents began burying their loved ones as the identified bodies were returned. A mass funeral was held at a local cemetery, where workers toiled to dig enough holes for the piles of coffins.

Santos said the mudslide destroyed a local aqueduct and knocked out power to much of the surrounding area.

He said four emergency water treatment plants would be set up to avoid epidemics of diseases such as cholera.

Colombia's worst disaster was a volcanic eruption in 1985 that triggered a landslide and destroyed the city of Armero, killing 25,000 people.