Colombia: 193 dead after rivers overflow, toppling homes

An avalanche of water from three overflowing rivers tore through a town in Colombia while people slept, destroying homes, sweeping away cars and killing at least 193 unsuspecting residents.

The incident triggered by a sudden, heavy rainstorm happened around midnight local time in Mocoa, a provincial capital of about 40,000 tucked between mountains near Colombia's southern border with Ecuador.

Muddy water quickly surged through the city's streets, toppling homes, ripping trees from their roots and carrying a torrent of rocks and debris downstream. Many residents did not have enough time to flee. According to the Red Cross, 202 people were injured and 220 believed missing.

President Juan Manuel Santos declared a state of emergency and said the death toll will likely rise. "We don't know how many there are going to be," he said of the fatalities when he arrived at the disaster zone.

Eduardo Vargas, 29, was asleep with his wife and 7-month-old baby when he was awoken by the sound of neighbours banging on his door. He quickly grabbed his family and fled up a small mountain amid the cries of people in panic. "There was no time for anything," he said.

Vargas and his family huddled with about two dozen other residents as rocks, trees and wooden planks ripped through their neighbourhood below. They waited there until daylight, when members of the military helped them down.

When he reached the site of his home yesterday, nothing his family left behind remained. "Thank God we have our lives," he said.

As rescuers assessed the full scope of the damage, many residents in Mocoa continued a desperate search for friends and relatives.

Oscar Londono tried in vain throughout the night to reach by phone his wife's parents, whose home is right along one of the flooded rivers.

Once the sun began to rise he started walking toward their house. "There were bodies all over," he said.

When he finally reached the neighbourhood where his in-laws live he found "just mud and rocks". Rescue workers with the military oriented him towards the mountain, where he found his relatives camped with other survivors. "To know they were alive," he said, "it was a reunion of tears."

Santos said at least 22 people were seriously injured and being airlifted to nearby cities, as the small regional hospital in Mocoa struggled to cope with the magnitude of the crisis. Herman Granados, an anesthesiologist, said he worked throughout the night on victims, cleaning wounds. He said the hospital doesn't have a blood bank large enough to deal with the number of patients. Some of the hospital workers came to help even while there are own relatives remained missing.

- AP

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