Mexican authorities backtrack on landslide, say no deaths are confirmed and only 11 missing

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mexico: No confirmed landslide deaths, 11 missing

OAXACA, Mexico — A huge mudslide first thought to have buried hundreds of people has left only 11 missing and there are no confirmed dead, authorities said Tuesday night, backing off earlier predictions of a catastrophe in Mexico’s rain-soaked southern state of Oaxaca.

Federal Interior Minister Francisco Blake and Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz both confirmed the drastically reduced toll from the slide that hit the town of Santa Maria de Tlahuitoltepec early Tuesday.

“So far no one is confirmed dead, only 11 missing who we hope … will be found,” Ruiz told The Associated Press.

Initial reports from Santa Maria de Tlahuitoltepec, a rural mountain town 373 miles (600 kilometers) southeast of Mexico City, said a hillside collapsed on hundreds of sleeping residents after several days of heavy rains in the aftermath of a hurricane and tropical storm that hit Mexico and Central America.

Civil protection authorities first reported seven people killed and at least 100 missing, but Ruiz later reported casualties as four dead and 12 missing.

Jose Alfredo Garcia, spokesman for the Interior Department, told the AP that the initial reports were based on the number of homes hit by the mudslide, but at the time no federal or state officials had reached the site to check the estimates.

Communications with the town were difficult after the pre-dawn slide. Soldiers and civil protection and Red Cross workers couldn’t reach the area for nearly 10 hours because mud and rocks blocked roads and a bridge was damaged, while bad weather prevented helicopters from being used.

President Felipe Calderon reported on his Twitter account Tuesday afternoon that an army commander and 30 soldiers had reached the town by foot and that there was a lot of damage, but “perhaps not of the magnitude initially reported.”

Donato Vargas, an official in Santa Maria de Tlahuitoltepec reached by a satellite telephone, had said as many as 300 homes were believed to buried, and residents who made it out early in the morning said they had no success digging out neighbors.

“We have been using a backhoe but there is a lot of mud. We can’t even see the homes, we can’t hear shouts, we can’t hear anything,” Vargas said.

Vargas said the slide dragged houses packed with sleeping families some 1,300 feet (400 meters) down the hillside along with cars, livestock and light poles.

“We were all sleeping and all I heard was a loud noise and when I left the house I saw that the hill had fallen,” Vargas said. “We were left without electricity, without telephone and we couldn’t help them. There was no way to move the mud.”

One person was reported killed in a mudslide in another Oaxaca community, Villa Hidalgo, and 30 people were killed Monday in a slide in Colombia. Heavy rains, including some delivered by the remnants of Hurricane Karl and then Tropical Storm Matthew, also have produced deadly floods in southern Mexico and Central America.

Oaxaca Civil Protection operations coordinator Luis Marin said the state had seen three days straight of intense rain. The state government warned residents south of the city of Oaxaca of flooding from overflowing rivers and opened shelters in other parts of the state.

Santa Maria de Tlahuitoltepec, which had 9,000 residents in 2005 according to Mexican census data, is a community high in the Sierra Norte mountains known for maintaining its indigenous culture, especially its music. Residents speak the native language, Mixe, and its youth orchestra plays throughout Mexico.

Vargas said a second hill threatened to give way in another part of town.

“We are in a serious risk situation,” he said. “In all of our neighborhoods there are houses and roads cracked and about to fall.”

Huge swaths of riverside communities in southern Mexico were still under water Tuesday — flooding exacerbated by the passage of Karl and Matthew. Before Tuesday’s landslides, at least 15 deaths in Mexico were blamed on the hurricane.

In Honduras, authorities said four people, including a child, drowned in rivers and creeks swollen by Tropical Storm Matthew. The National Emergencies Commission said Tuesday that three adults died in the town of El Oregano and a 10-year-old child in the Caribbean coast town of La Lima.

In Colombia, about 30 people were killed Monday by a landslide northwest of Bogota, the capital. Many were changing from one bus to another because a mountain road was blocked, but the residents of five houses also were buried, rescue officials said.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos visited the scene Tuesday between the towns of Giraldo and Canasgordas in Antioquia state, northwest of Bogota. “The situation is very difficult,” he told reporters as rescue teams with sniffer dogs probed tons of earth.

Witnesses described a roar as first rocks and then earth swept over the road Monday afternoon. Amateur video shows the slide bearing down and scouring away the houses.

Heavy rains in recent weeks across Colombia have triggered flooding that has claimed at least 74 lives.

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