Flooding and mudslides in the Colombian city of Mocoa sent torrents of water and debris crashing on to houses early on Saturday morning (Colombian time), killing 254 people, injuring hundreds and sending terrified residents, some in their pajamas, scrambling to evacuate.
Heavy rains caused several rivers to overflow, pushing sediment and rocks on to buildings and roads in the capital of south-western Putumayo province and immobilising cars in metres of mud.
“It was a torrential rainstorm, it got really strong between 11pm and 1am,” said local resident Mario Usale, 42, who was looking for his father-in-law in the debris.
“My mother-in-law was also missing, but we found her alive 2km away. She has head injuries, but she was conscious.”
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos flew to Mocoa, population 345,000, to oversee rescue efforts on the city outskirts and speak to affected families.
“We will do everything possible to help them,” Santos said after confirming the death toll. “It breaks my heart.”
The army said in a statement 254 people were killed, 400 people had been injured and 200 were missing. More than 1100 soldiers and police officers were called in to help dig people out in 17 affected neighbourhoods.
Santos gave a lower death toll of 193 via Twitter.
Even in a country where heavy rains, a mountainous landscape and informal underengineered construction of homes combine to make mud and landslips a common occurrence, the scale of the Mocoa disaster was daunting compared with recent tragedies, such as a 2015 landslip that killed nearly 80 people in Salgar, Antioquia.
Colombia’s deadliest landslip, the 1985 Armero disaster, left a death toll of more than 20,000 people.
“It’s a big area,” Mocoa Mayor Jose Antonio Castro, who lost his house, told Caracol radio yesterday.
“A big portion of the many houses were just taken by the avalanche.”
He said that people were warned ahead of time and many were able to get out, but several neighbourhoods and two bridges had been destroyed nonetheless.
Weather authorities said light rains were expected in the area yesterday and today.
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. Reuters