Des­per­ate search con­tin­ues for chil­dren in town where 262 died

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY ALBA TOBELLA

MO­COA, COLOM­BIA | Jose Al­beiro Var­gas last saw his grand­son the night fierce rain un­leashed havoc on this small city sur­rounded by rivers and moun­tains in south­ern Colom­bia.

From what Mr. Var­gas has been able to gather, the tor­rents of mud, wa­ter and de­bris un­leashed on the city of Mo­coa by the rain-swollen river swept away his daugh­ter and her 18-month-old grand­son, Jadir Es­tiven. Ever since, has been search­ing for them with­out suc­cess.

“They were hit by the strong­est avalanche,” Mr. Var­gas, a cloth­ing store owner who was so ex­hausted he could barely speak or open his eyes, said Sun­day.

He is far from the only per­son in Mo­coa search­ing des­per­ately for young loved ones. At least 43 chil­dren were among the con­firmed dead from the dev­as­tat­ing flood, ac­cord­ing to Pres­i­dent Juan Manuel San­tos. The na­tional dis­as­ter man­age­ment agency said Mon­day that the of­fi­cial death toll had in­creased to 262.

The young may have been par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble in this dis­as­ter be­cause nearly all were in bed when the floods surged through the city of 40,000 Fri­day night and early Satur­day.

Maria Cor­doba, 52, said two of her neph­ews, ages 6 and 11, were killed when their house was de­stroyed. “The mother as well was to­tally beaten up” but man­aged to save her 18-mon­thold baby, she said while at the river try­ing to clean items she sal­vaged from her home.

The death toll from the flood, one of the worst nat­u­ral dis­as­ters to strike the coun­try in years, was ex­pected to rise as many peo­ple were in­jured or re­mained un­ac­counted for, and bod­ies were still be­ing pulled from the thick mud, tree limbs and de­bris that cov­ered much of the city. The del­uge smashed houses, tore trees out by the roots and washed cars and trucks away.

Search-and-res­cue teams combed through the de­bris and helped peo­ple who had been claw­ing at huge mounds of mud by hand.

“Peo­ple went to their houses and found noth­ing but the floor,” said Gilma Diaz, a 42-year-old from another town who came to search for a cousin.

Dozens stood in the door of a hospi­tal, hop­ing for news of family mem­bers who were not on the list of those con­firmed dead or in­jured. Others fran­ti­cally knocked on rel­a­tives’ doors, hop­ing to find some­one with in­for­ma­tion about their loved ones.

A res­cue worker in an orange jump­suit emerged from one search area with the body of an in­fant wrapped in a towel. Not far away, Abe­lardo So­larte, a 48-year-old res­i­dent of Mo­coa, held a child’s shoe as he helped clear de­bris.

“You have no idea how many kids there are around here,” Mr. So­larte said.

Mr. San­tos, who vis­ited Mo­coa for a sec­ond straight day Sun­day, de­clared the area a dis­as­ter zone. The pres­i­dent said the avalanche of wa­ter and de­bris also de­stroyed roads and bridges, knocked out power in half of the province of Pu­tu­mayo, where Mo­coa is lo­cated, and de­stroyed the area’s fresh wa­ter net­work, cre­at­ing dan­ger­ous and un­san­i­tary con­di­tions.

Mo­coa is vul­ner­a­ble to flood­ing. It is sur­rounded by the three rivers in a nat­u­ral basin cre­ated by the sur­round­ing moun­tains.

The dan­ger has grown worse in re­cent years be­cause of de­for­esta­tion, which elim­i­nates some pro­tec­tion from runoff, and be­cause many peo­ple built their homes close to the wa­ter. But the trig­ger­ing event was rain­fall of more than 5 inches that be­gan late Fri­day.

“The rain fell on Mo­coa with an in­ten­sity and force that was with­out prece­dent and dev­as­tat­ing,” Mr. San­tos said. “It rained in two hours what falls in a month in Bogota.”

A 1989 hy­drol­ogy re­port for the Agri­cul­tural Min­istry warned that just such a dis­as­ter could hap­pen un­less steps were taken to re­in­force the river­banks, chan­nel wa­ter away from the town and re­store some of the for­est. It was not im­me­di­ately clear why those steps had not been taken.

Colom­bian of­fi­cials pledged aid to re­build homes, and the at­tor­ney gen­eral launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into whether lo­cal and na­tional au­thor­i­ties re­sponded ad­e­quately to the dis­as­ter. Mr. San­tos also said the gov­ern­ment would launch a health and vac­ci­na­tion cam­paign in the city to pre­vent an out­break of dis­ease.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Sol­diers and mem­bers of the Colom­bian Red Cross re­cover the body of a vic­tim of mud­slides that hap­pened fol­low­ing heavy rains, in Mo­coa, Colom­bia, on Mon­day as the grim search con­tin­ues for the miss­ing in south­ern Colom­bia.

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