More than 250 people killed after weekend mudslides in Colombia

Rescuers search for victims following mudslides caused by heavy rains in Mocoa, Putumayo department, southern Colombia on April 2, 2017. The death toll from a devastating landslide in the Colombian town of Mocoa stood at around 200 on Sunday as rescuers clawed through piles of muck and debris in search of survivors. / AFP PHOTO / LUIS ROBAYO (Photo credit should read LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images)

MOCOA, Colombia — There are no more people officially missing after mudslides in Colombia that killed at least 254, the country’s president said on Twitter Sunday.

Torrential rains Friday night caused three rivers surrounding the southern Colombian city of Mocoa to overflow — sending a torrent of mud and debris surging through the city.

President Juan Manuel Santos said 170 victims had been identified.

He said 43 children were among the dead and 22 more had been hospitalized. A further 203 people were injured, many severely.

“To all [victims], we send our prayers. We send our condolences to their families, condolences from the entire country,” Santos said in an address earlier.

Trapped by the river

Concerned by the increasingly heavy rainstorms Friday, Simon Uribe and his family shifted from their first-floor riverside apartment to the level above.

The river broke its banks 50 meters up the street, splitting and leaving their home effectively surrounded by two strong currents. The electricity cut out.

“At some point, most of the city was colored with water, no power but you can see rivers in every street,” Uribe tells CNN.

“I watched people — some girls coming down the river — some bodies coming by the water. It was terrible. It was pretty shocking,” he said.

“We were trapped, and the rivers were breaking the houses up the street and it was coming down so we thought at some point it was going to take our house away. ”

Uribe and his family — including his 10-month-old son — escaped to higher ground. The next morning, Uribe found several feet of muddy water where his home had been.

“There was basically no house left,” Uribe tells CNN. “It was shocking.”

Racing against time

More than 1,000 soldiers and national police officers are involved in the ongoing rescue effort, and they are facing enormous challenges.

“The difficulties we are facing are that it is still raining in the region and the (mudslide) turned up a considerable amount of land. There are mobility issues on almost 80% of the roads, and where the road ends, it is three hours to the place where the (mudslide) took place,” a police spokesman told reporters.

Photos released by Colombia’s military showed rescuers carrying old women and children over downed, mud-caked trees and homes.

President Santos said Sunday that 10 mobile water tanks were in place and 16 more were on the way to Mocoa, as well as water purification systems. He added that a local hospital was back in operation and medical supplies had been flown in.

He pledged Sunday to rehouse those displaced.

“To those who lost their homes, we will build new ones in a safer place. In the meantime, we will give them a monthly rent stipend of 87 dollars. And I have asked the housing minister to begin this initiative today,” the president said.

Save the Children said at least 70 children had been separated from their parents by the landslide.

The organization said it would be working to support children and families in the area and was helping to coordinate hygiene kits and temporary friendly spaces for affected children to attend.

“This is obviously a highly shocking and chaotic situation for the population in the most vulnerable situation, especially pregnant women, children and adolescents,” executive director Maria Paula Martinez said in a statement calling for support.

What caused the landslides?

Heavy rains, high levels of deforestation, informal housing and dense human populations are some factors that can leave communities vulnerable to landslides, scientists say.

CNN Meteorologist Michael Guy says it appears that the surrounding region had saturated ground from above-average rainfall this year.

During March and April, the rainy season ramps up with moisture moving in from the Amazon River Valley. Estimates suggest some 127 to 200 mm (5 to 8 inches) of rain fell in the past week.

“Taking into account geography for the region, topography, deforestation due to agriculture, etc … this creates the perfect environment for mudslides/landslides on the leeward side of the Andes mountains where this town is located,” Guy said.

“The floodwaters got stuck up in the mountain and when it came down many people didn’t have time to react and they were washed away,” a survivor told CNN.

Running for their lives

Aerial footage of the site showed some rooftops poking above the muddy deluge that flattened other homes, bridges and highways.

Power and water supplies to Mocoa have been cut by the disaster, and the hospital system has shut down, firefighters say.

Images showed cars and buses trapped in several feet of mud.

Gabriel Umaña, a spokesman for the Colombian Red Cross, told CNN that 300 families had been displaced and more than two dozen homes had been flattened.

Many residents were sound asleep when the river of mud hit their neighborhoods, and witnesses said the sludge flowed so fast that they had to run for their lives.

President Santos personally comforted Marcelo Garreta, who said he could see dead bodies being carried away by floodwaters but was powerless to help.

“We couldn’t help anybody, because if we tried we would’ve been washed away as well. I saw light poles washed away by the floodwaters. This is a great tragedy,” Garreta said.