At least 254 people have been killed, 400 injured and hundreds of others have been reported missing after torrential rains triggered severe mudslides and flooding in the city of Mocoa, capital of Putumayo, in southern-western Colombia in the early hours of Saturday morning (1 a.m. on Friday), army officials said on Saturday.
Heavy overnight rainfall triggered mudslides and an “avalanche” of water that caused several rivers to overflow their banks in the Amazon basin area, sending sediment and rocks on to buildings and roads and sweeping away houses, bridges, vehicles and trees while people slept in their beds. Many of the victims did not have enough time to climb on top of their roofs, or seek refuge on higher ground. The tragedy has destroyed many buildings and stripped off the region from basic necessities like water, food and electricity.
The mudslides struck late Friday after days of torrential rain. The death toll has been rising throughout the day, with some officials fearing it may still grow further as the search for survivors continues. As reported by Reuters, the Colombian army said in a statement that 254 people were killed, 400 people had been injured and 200 were missing early in the evening of April 1. The further report said that more than 1,100 soldiers and police officers were called in to help dig people out in 17 affected neighbourhoods.
“There were 17 affected neighbourhoods,” Mocoa Mayor José Castro told Colombian Magazine La Semana.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos flew to Mocoa Saturday morning to personally oversee rescue efforts on the city outskirts and speak with affected families caused by the simultaneous overflowing of three nearby rivers. He gave a lower death toll of 193 via Twitter.
Lamentablemente la más reciente cifra por tragedia en Putumayo es: 193 fallecidos y 202 heridos. Solidaridad con sus familias #TodosConMocoa
— Juan Manuel Santos (@JuanManSantos) April 1, 2017
President Juan Manuel Santos said declaring an emergency would allow authorities “to be able to attend to this situation in the best way possible”. We will begin the full process of humanitarian aid, and of course, attend the injured, we will begin the funeral process for all those people who passed away and we will begin re-establishing [public] services that were suspended, according to Colombia Reports.
According to newspaper El Espectador, at least 2,500 soldiers have been deployed in the southern city to help with the search and rescue work, along with Colombia’s National Unit for the Management of Disaster Risk (UNGRD) personnel and volunteers for the Red Cross. The violent flooding blocked the main road connecting to the city and rest of the country and also destroyed the local hospital, meaning it can only be reached by air.
The president said that at least four helicopters and five planes have also been present to assist various emergency agency’s officials. Some 50 tanker trucks were brought in by early afternoon as well to help in the ongoing effort to provide potable water to the community. The emergency unit of the National Police and a specialized aerial unit of the army have also been sent to the scene of the tragedy. The National Police made at least 14 flights into the area with supplies.
The primary local hospital is struggling to manage the situation, according to a BBC report. The Colombian Health Ministry has also implemented an emergency action plan to prevent the spread of diseases from the decomposing bodies of victims in the hot and humid region.
The bodies were being placed in a temporary morgue where three teams of medical examiners were working around the clock to swiftly identify the remains. Local media reported that national authorities had sent 60 forensic investigators to the tragic spot to identify the bodies of victims of the disaster.
Authorities in Colombia have been on increased alert for such a calamity because the first monsoon of this year (2017) in the country came combined with the La Niña weather phenomenon, which brings extra rain from the Pacific Ocean.
“Some 130 millimeters of rain fell Friday night. That means 30 per cent of monthly rainfall fell on last night, which precipitated a sudden rise of several rivers,” President Juan Manuel Santos told AFP.