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Flooding and mudslides in Mocoa, Colombia, sent torrents of water and debris crashing onto houses in the early hours of Saturday morning, killing 254 people, injuring hundreds and sending terrified residents, some in their pyjamas, scrambling to evacuate.

Rescue effort following the Columbia landslide

Heavy rains caused several rivers to overflow, pushing sediment and rocks on to buildings and roads in the capital of southwestern Putumayo province and immobilising cars in several feet of mud.

“It was a torrential rainstorm, it got really strong between 11pm and 1am,” said local resident Mario Usale, 42, who was looking for his father-in-law in the debris. “My mother-in-law was also missing, but we found her alive two kilometers away. She has head injuries, but she was conscious.”

President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, flew to Mocoa, which has a population 345,000, to oversee rescue efforts on the city outskirts and speak with affected families. “We will do everything possible to help them,” Santos said after confirming the death toll. “It breaks my heart.”

The army said in a statement that 254 people were killed, 400 people had been injured and 200 were missing. More than 1,100 soldiers and police officers were called in to help dig people out in 17 affected neighborhoods.

Even in a country where heavy rains, a mountainous landscape and informal construction of homes combine to make mud and landslides a common occurrence, the scale of the Mocoa disaster was daunting compared to recent tragedies, such as a 2015 landslide that killed nearly 80 people in Salgar, Antioquia.

Colombia’s deadliest landslide, the 1985 Armero disaster, left more than 20,000 dead. “It’s a big area,” Mocoa mayor José Antonio Castro, who lost his house, told Caracol radio on Saturday. “A big portion of the many houses were just taken by the avalanche.”

He said people were warned ahead of time and many were able to get out, but several streets and two bridges had been destroyed.

Weather authorities said light rains were expected in the area on Saturday night and Sunday.

Photos posted on Twitter by the air force showed streets filled with mud and damaged houses, while videos on social media showed residents searching for survivors in the debris and struggling to move through waist-high water during the night.

“We have sent a team of 150 people to make our response effective and machinery began work immediately,” Carlos Ivan Marquez, head of the response unit, said in a statement. “We will be with the governor and the mayor giving all necessary attention.”

A combination of heavy rains, mountainous landscape and poorly constructed homes makes landslides in the Andean country relatively common.

Early on Saturday evening, Santos declared a state of emergency in the city, to allow rescue operations to be mobilised in the region. “We will do everything possible to help them,” he said. “It breaks my heart.”

More than 1,100 soldiers and police officers have been called in to find and rescue survivors. Hundreds remain unaccounted for.

Courtesy: The Guardian of London

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