BOGOTA, Colombia – Rescuers in southern Colombia scrambled overnight to reach more than 100 victims still missing more than a day after devastating mudslides tore through entire villages.
At least 254 people have been killed and around 400 more injured, the military said, after torrential rains Friday night caused three rivers surrounding Mocoa in Putumayo province to overflow, sending a stream of mud through the city.
The Red Cross put the death toll at 234, and said that 158 people were still missing.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos declared a sate of emergency and told reporters at the scene that the death toll could climb.
“The first thing I want to say is that my heart, our hearts, the hearts of all Colombians are with the victims of this tragedy,” he said.
“We don’t know yet where they are. Many people are coming to us saying, ‘My son is missing, my father is missing, my mother is missing.'”
He said that the city had experienced in one night around a third of the rainfall that it should over the span of a month, blaming the disaster on climate change.
Heavy rains, high levels of deforestation, informal housing and dense human populations are some factors that can leave communities vulnerable to landslides, scientists say.
Running for their lives
Aerial footage of the site showed some rooftops poking above the muddy deluge that flattened other homes, bridges and highways.
Power and water supplies to the city have been cut by the disaster, and the hospital system has shut down, firefighters say.
Images showed cars and buses trapped in several feet of mud.
Gabriel Umaña, a spokesman for the Colombian Red Cross, told CNN that 300 families had been displaced and more than two dozen homes had been flattened.
Many were sound asleep when the torrent of mud hit their neighborhoods, and witnesses said the the sludge flowed so fast that they had to run for their lives.
“Around 11, 12 o’clock (on Friday), there was a huge storm, a lot of water. I got up because it sounded so heavy, the sound of the rocks. Everyone (was shocked),” one man at the site said, Reuters reported.
Another wearing yellow rubber boots stood on some rocks as a river of mud streamed by.
“Nobody has given me news. Nobody, nobody. No one from my house or my family. I am at the will of my God. I have nothing. Nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep. These clothes were given to me,” he said.
Residents pored over a list of missing people pinned outside a family welfare center. One listed only children, some as young as 2.
“We have lost a baby, who has gone missing, and the rest is as you can see. A little baby, we can’t find him anywhere,” said one woman, wiping away tears.
Racing against time
More than 1,000 soldiers and national police officers are involved in the rescue, and they are facing enormous challenges.
“The difficulties we are facing are that it is still raining in the region and the (mudslide) turned up a considerable amount of land. There are mobility issues on almost 80% of the roads, and where the road ends, it is three hours to the place where the (mudslide) took place,” a police spokesman told reporters.
Photos released by Colombia’s military showed rescuers carrying old women and children over downed, mud-caked trees and homes.
Colombia is no stranger to mudslides.
In 2015, torrential rains in northwest Colombia caused a mudslide that killed more than 80 people.