MOCOA, Columbia — Rescuers in southern Colombia were scrambling Sunday to reach more than 100 people who are missing after devastating mudslides tore through entire communities.
Hundreds are reported dead after torrential rains Friday night caused three rivers surrounding Mocoa, in Putumayo province, to overflow — sending a torrent of mud surging through the city.
Reports of the exact number of those killed in the rugged, remote area vary. The Colombian military said at least 254 are dead and around 400 more injured. The Red Cross reports 234 deaths and said that 158 people were missing.
President Juan Manuel Santos has declared a state of emergency. Santos put the death toll at 207 but told reporters at the scene that the number 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.
Santos said 43 children are among those killed, with 22 more hospitalized. He added that many children can’t find their parents.
“There are still many missing people. We don’t know where they are. That’s why the system is still trying to locate them and will continue to do so until we find the last person.”
Earlier Santos said, “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 receive 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 Mocoa 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 river of mud hit their neighborhoods, and witnesses said 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 congregated outside a family welfare center pored over a list of missing people. 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.
President Santos personally comforted Marcelo Garreta, who said he could see dead bodies being carried away by floodwaters but was powerless to help.
“We couldn’t help anybody, because if we tried we would’ve been washed away as well. I saw light poles washed away by the floodwaters. This is a great tragedy,” Garreta said.
“A very mountainous region surrounded by rivers”
Simón Uribe, a filmmaker living in the area, told CNN the mudslide wreaked havoc on Mocoa’s “many irregular settlements.”
“Mocoa is an a very mountainous region surrounded by rivers,” Uribe said. “We were staying at a house near one of those rivers and, in a matter of minutes, we started to see cars being washed away, motorcycles and chunks of houses.”
Uribe and those in the house with him retreated to the second floor as floodwaters rushed in, but they were eventually forced to evacuate.
“It was chaos with people running in all different directions, trying to get out of their houses and climbing on top of roofs. We were in that critical situation for about two hours.”
When he returned to the house, Uribe said, “a good portion of it was destroyed and mud was about 1.5 meters high.”
Mocoa resident Leandro Delgado told CNN that floodwaters swept away huge trees just before midnight.
“Those neighborhoods located uphill are the hardest hit.This is complete catastrophe,” Delgado said. “People would run. They were desperate. They started pulling bodies around three in the morning from those mounds of mud there.”
Some appear to have escaped with only their lives.
“I was left with nothing, but my two children,” Lourdes Gutiérrez told CNN. “Everything is truly finished.”
Racing against time
More than 1,000 soldiers and national police officers are involved in the ongoing rescue effort, 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.
President Santos said emergency officials are also bringing water tanks and purification plants to Mocoa.
Colombia is no stranger to mudslides.
In 2015, torrential rains in northwest Colombia caused a mudslide that killed more than 80 people.