The death toll from mudslides in southwest Colombia has risen to 254, with dozens of children among those killed, President Juan Manuel Santos said late Sunday.
Santos declared a state of emergency in Mocoa Saturday, where more than 1,000 soldiers and police are working in challenging conditions as part of a huge relief operation.
Relief workers face challenging conditions, with the slides having cut off roads, and rain continuing to fall, raising the risk of further slips. Scores of dead remain unidentified and streets are buried in layers of thick mud.
Mocoa, the capital of the remote Putumayo province in Colombia’s Amazon basin, was struck early Saturday by powerful torrents of mud and debris that swept away homes and vehicles and inundated entire neighborhoods.
The mudslides struck while most of the town’s 40,000 residents were asleep, giving them no chance to flee.
The slides were triggered by extremely heavy rainfall that dramatically raised the levels of the Mocoa River and its tributaries, causing them to burst their banks.
Carlos Ivan Marquez, director of the National Disaster Risk Management Unit, told AFP that 5 inches of rain – about a third of the expected monthly rainfall – fell Friday night.
How many people have been affected?
Santos put the death toll at 254 late Sunday, but he noted that number could climb.
“There are still many missing people. We don’t know where they are,” he said. “That’s why the system is still trying to locate them and will continue to do so until we find the last person.”
He said 43 children were among the dead, with 22 more in hospital.
Colombia’s Red Cross said 300 families have been displaced and more than two dozen homes destroyed.
About 600 survivors spent Sunday in makeshift shelters in Mocoa. Conditions for residents are precarious, with electricity, gas, and phone lines disrupted, fresh water supplies limited, and rain continuing to fall. Santos said Sunday that a workaround solution to restore power to Mocoa would take 10 days.
The Red Cross is working to help people locate missing family members, while the Air Force has flown in supplies, and has been ferrying out some of the injured by air. Putumayo Governor Sorrel Aroca told a Colombian radio station, Caracol Radio, that the local hospital was struggling to deal with the surge of injured patients.
How common are landslides in Colombia?
Reasonably common, although this one was particularly deadly. South America is considered a hotspot for landslides. In November, nine people died in a landslide in El Tambo, about 90 miles from Mocoa, during a landslide that followed heavy rain; the previous month, six were killed in another near Medellin. In 2015, a mudslide in Salgar, about 60 miles southwest of Medellin, killed more than 80.
Scientists say that factors such as heavy rains, deforestation, dense human populations, and informal housing can heighten the risk of landslides. Santos has blamed climate change for contributing to the disaster in Mocoa, a view echoed by Martin Santiago, the U.N. chief for Colombia.
“Climate change is generating dynamics and we see the tremendous results in terms of intensity, frequency, and magnitude of these natural effects, as we have just seen in Mocoa,” he said.
Adriana Soto, regional director of The Nature Conservancy and a former Colombian environment minister, told Caracol Radio that she believed climate change was a factor, as well as the construction of housing near rivers, and deforestation, which reduced the landscape’s natural resilience to slippage. “When the basins are deforested, they break down. It is as if we remove the protection for avoiding landslides,” she said.