As many as 254 people are dead and hundreds more may still be missing after floodwaters and mudslides inundated the Colombian city of Mocoa overnight Friday. Several rivers overflowed their banks early Saturday morning after a torrential rainstorm, and the resulting wall of water, mud, rocks, and debris struck while the city slept, forcing panicked residents from their homes and sweeping away houses, cars, and people. Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, who toured the city on Saturday, has declared a state of emergency in the region and vowed to help the victims and quickly restore city services. It is the worst natural disaster to strike the country in decades.
The precise death toll remains unclear, not only because of the missing, but because three different numbers have been reported by Colombian officials. The lowest of the three totals, announced by Santos, is 210 dead. The highest, from the military, is 257. Either way, the toll seems likely to rise. Some 400 people were injured as well, but their treatment has been made difficult by the destruction of a local hospital, as well as inadequate blood bank supplies, according to multiple reports.
More than 1,100 soldiers, police officers, and rescue workers had arrived in the city by Saturday night, and rescue and recovery efforts are continuing as swiftly as possible. Mocoa is an isolated city with nearly 350,000 residents in the mountainous southwestern part of the country, and access remains difficult as part of the main road to the city was destroyed, as were many other roads and bridges in the city and region. So far, authorities have only been able to reach Mocoa by air, and the city’s electricity and drinking water supplies remain cut off. It’s not clear how many are dead and missing outside of Mocoa either, as downstream rural villages in the remote Amazonian region were hit hard as well.
Here is a video shot during the floods early Saturday morning:
And more footage of the aftermath:
Ongoing rains have led to fears of additional mudslides in the region. Such events are normal in Putumayo province and many other parts of Colombia, and there have already been several deadly mudslides this year, but nothing even close to the scale of Saturday’s catastrophe. The director of the country’s National Disaster Risk Management Unit told the AFP that 5 inches of rain fell in the region on Friday night, which would normally account for 30 percent of the region’s monthly rainfall.
The extra rain is likely related to this year’s rainy season coinciding with the “La Nina” weather phenomenon, and Colombia is not the only Latin American country to experience dangerous rainfall amounts so far this year. In addition, “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,” the U.N. chief for Colombia explained to the AFP.
In the meantime, many residents and rescue workers are still looking for the missing, hoping to find more survivors before it’s too late — or at least recover their bodies. Some victims have been found as far as two kilometers from where they were when the avalanche of water and sediment struck.
This post has been updated to reflect the varying death total.