Mexico: Mudslide proves less deadly than feared

September 29, 2010 7:27:02 AM PDT
A loud noise shattered the early morning darkness as an entire hillside collapsed on a town in Mexico's rain-soaked southern state of Oaxaca.

Roads were blocked by slides and a washed-out bridge, and the only reports - via satellite phone - were grim: Hundreds could be buried or dead.

But hours later, when rescue workers finally walked into Santa Maria de Tlahuitoltepec, only 11 people were missing and none confirmed dead.

It was welcome news after nearly 12 hours of dire predictions in an area that has been battered by the remnants of a hurricane one week followed by a tropical storm the next.

"So far no one is confirmed dead, only 11 missing who we hope ... will be found," Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz told The Associated Press on Tuesday night.

Dozens of state police and firefighters dug with picks, shovels and a bulldozer in the river of mud and stones that had swept down the hillside early Tuesday, but they later had to suspend the search for eight missing children and three adults as continued rains threatened the unstable soil.

Ruiz initially told a Mexico City television station that he had received reports 300 homes were buried, with as many as 1,000 people inside.

Civil protection authorities later reported seven people killed and at least 100 missing, but as outside rescuers finally reached the scene, Ruiz later put casualties at four dead and 12 missing. Later, officials said that even the deaths were not confirmed.

The slide dragged houses packed with sleeping families some 1,300 feet (400 meters) down the hillside along with cars, livestock and light poles - leaving as many as 300 homes buried, said Donato Vargas, an official in Santa Maria de Tlahuitoltepec reached earlier in the day by satellite telephone. 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. "We were left without electricity, without telephone and we couldn't help them. There was no way to move the mud."

Several hundred rescue workers - soldiers, state and federal police plus firefighters, civil defense and Red Cross workers - left as early as 5 a.m. to reach the battered town. When they started arriving around noon, the situation wasn't nearly as bad as they feared.

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."

The news was not so good elsewhere. 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.

Huge swaths of riverside communities in southern Mexico were still under water Tuesday - due to 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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Associated Press writers Ixtli Martinez and Jose Maria Alvarez contributed to this report.


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