Oaxaca, Mexico (AFP) Sept 28, 2010
Residents of a remote Mexican town launched a desperate bare-handed effort Tuesday to rescue at least 100 people missing and feared dead from a landslide that buried hundreds of homes while their occupants slept.
Military units and rescue crews including ambulances and helicopters were prevented from reaching the town of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec by other landslides that blocked roads and bad weather in the mountainous region that persisted after the wall of mud was unleashed at 3:00 am (0800 GMT).
"We have requested emergency assistance from the army and the government, but so far no one has arrived," town secretary Donato Vargas, reached by satellite phone, told AFP from the town of 10,000 mainly indigenous residents about 130 kilometers (80 miles) northeast of Oaxaca city.
At least seven people were confirmed dead in the disaster, which occurred when a hillside 200 meters (660 feet) wide collapsed in the rain-soaked southern state of Oaxaca, authorities said citing a preliminary toll from the town 2,400 meters (7,920 feet) above sea level.
There has been confusion over how many people may have been hit by the tragedy.
Oaxaca Governor Ulises Ruiz initially told Mexican television that the landslide buried between 100 and 300 homes and that "up to 1,000" people were feared dead in a region already hit by deadly flooding in the wake of Tropical Storm Matthew.
Ruiz later told Mexican radio that authorities in the town listed seven dead and 100 missing.
Vargas said earlier that the El Calvario neighborhood was plunged into confusion and dread as residents looked for at least 400 people missing after the landslide.
It was not immediately clear if the tolls had been revised because survivors had been pulled from the mud and debris, missing residents had been found, or the number of estimated homes buried had changed.
But the death toll was expected to rise, and local officials said they were desperately awaiting the massive rescue operation.
"We fear that the missing are buried inside their homes because they have already searched the surrounding neighborhood," Vargas said.
"Residents of nearby villages came to help dig, many of them with their hands, trying to reach the buried houses."
With a section of a key road link to Oaxaca washed out, a convoy of ambulances, firetrucks, earth-moving equipment and military units was struggling to find a way into Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec.
"We're trying to come via Otlocotlan, hopefully we can get there by this afternoon," Gilberto Avalos, a rescue team member told reporters.
The town has been completely cut off. Cell phone service was down, and authorities said helicopters dispatched shortly after the disaster were forced to turn back on account of continued bad weather.
A wide area of Mexico has been devastated this year by what officials describe as the heaviest rains on record.
If fears of hundreds of deaths are realized, the landslide would be the worst single weather-related disaster this year to befall a nation already suffering from a string of hurricanes and tropical storms that have slammed it in the past several weeks.
The rains have flooded cities, towns and valleys, destroyed thousands of homes, damaged historic sites and inundated broad stretches of farmland.
Flooding and mudslides have killed at least 80 people since May in Mexico, including the Gulf coast state of Veracruz, where Hurricane Karl left at least 14 people dead and an estimated 400,000 people homeless.
As Mexicans sought to dry out from Karl, they were pounded last week by Tropical Storm Matthew, which quickly weakened and stalled over the southern parts of the country unleashing torrential rains.
The US National Hurricane Center, which has warned of a heavier-than-usual Atlantic storm season in 2010, said at the time that the system was expected to produce total rain accumulations of 25-50 centimeters (10 to 20 inches).
Suffering along with Mexico has been much of Central America, where flooding and landslides in recent months have killed more than 300 people, left tens of thousands homeless and caused billions of dollars in damage.
earlier related report
The alert, which allows mayors across the country to coordinate emergency responses with the federal government, will last until the end of the rainy season in November, said First Lady and government spokeswoman Rosario Murillo, reading from a presidential statement.
An unusually wet rainy season has triggered flash floods and mudslides that have killed 55 people -- including five people this past week alone -- and left more than 6,000 homeless since May.
Civil Defense chief Mario Perezcassar said 5,000 people in the capital living along the shores of Lake Managua, also known as Lake Xolotlan, have been ordered to leave their homes in the region's biggest evacuation since Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
Mexico and much of Central America have been hit by a succession of tropical depressions, storms and hurricanes that have killed more than 300 people, left tens of thousands homeless and caused billions of dollars in damage.
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