Rain hampers rescue work after mudslide kills several, destroys homes in southern Mexico

By Ixtli Martinez, AP
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Rain hampers rescue efforts in Mexican mudslide

OAXACA, Mexico — A hillside collapsed on hundreds of sleeping residents in a rural Mexican community early Tuesday, adding to the deadly toll that weeks of heavy rains have exacted on parts of Latin America.

Authorities in the town of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec said seven people were killed in the mudslide and at least 100 were missing, but the leader of their state, Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz, reported four confirmed dead and 12 missing.

President Felipe Calderon reported on his Twitter account 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.”

“We are very saddened by this tragedy, very sad but very determined to do everything in God’s power to save the victims who are alive in this landslide and to help the people of Santa Maria,” Calderon told reporters.

Communications with the town about 130 miles (220 kilometers) southeast of Mexico City have been difficult since 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 and in one case a collapsed bridge blocked roads, and bad weather prevented helicopters from being used.

Donato Vargas, an official in Santa Maria de Tlahuitoltepec reached by a satellite telephone, 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 their 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,” he said.

Vargas said the slide dragged houses packed with sleeping families some 1,300 feet (400 meters) downhill, 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 has seen three days straight of intense rain. The state government had warned residents south of the city of Oaxaca of flooding from overflowing rivers and opened shelters in other parts of the state.

Santa Maria 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 there is another hill about to give way in another area of town.

“We are in a serious risk situation,” Vargas 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.

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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