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Mexicans Entombed by Mudslides

Mexico flooding, AP
Juan Jimenez pulls a raft carrying his family's belongings in the Asuncion Castellanos neigborhood of Villahermosa in Tabasco state, where people have huddled on rooftops waiting to be rescued. (AP)
By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 8, 1999; Page A21

MEXICO CITY, Oct. 7óMassive mudslides and flooding set off by torrential rains in eastern and southern Mexico have killed more than 210 people, left scores missing and driven tens of thousands from their homes, authorities reported today.

The worst conditions were in the state of Puebla, east of Mexico City, where dozens of people were entombed by mudslides. Rescue workers struggled today to reach the small mountain town of Mixun, about 100 miles northeast of Mexico City, where as many as 40 people--including 17 schoolchildren and their teacher--were buried under a landslide Wednesday.

Townspeople reportedly spent Wednesday night listening to desperate cries for help coming from under thick layers of muck, but they were unable to reach survivors. Continued bad weather, flood-swollen rivers and washed out roads and bridges prevented rescuers from reaching the isolated town today, state disaster authorities said. Heavy fog also prevented helicopter access to the area.

In Teziutlan, south of Mixun and about 110 miles east of Mexico City, at least 26 people died when half of a rain-soaked hillside fell away and buried part of a neighborhood, officials said. More than 80 mudslides were recorded in and around the town, they said.

"We heard a very loud roar, then the earth started to move and mud started to fall down the hill as if they were throwing buckets of water onto it," Isidora Medina, 38, told the Associated Press, explaining how mudslides swept away several homes in the mountainous town Tuesday night.

"There is no way you can steel your gut enough to make it through something like this," said Jose Sanchez Tinoco, Teziutlan's mayor. At least 48 people were confirmed dead, 40 were missing and 4,500 were in shelters, he said.

In Hidalgo state's city of Tulancingo, about 50 miles northeast of Mexico City, local volunteers packed the town square today to load trucks with crates of water, rice and beans for the estimated 20,000 flood victims left homeless in nearby rural areas.

At dawn on Monday morning, a torrent of water turned the main road leading to town into a raging river that ripped up the roadbed and flooded dozens of shops and business. Today, two hotels were filled with three feet of water, automobiles were stranded in water up to their windows and the main highway connecting the town to even more ravaged outlying areas was completely severed.

"We've been putting out calls for help for three days on the radio for anyone with trucks to volunteer to get relief to the victims," said Alfonso Merina, who was helping direct the loading this afternoon.

"We haven't seen this type of flooding in years," said Francisco Lugo, an assistant to the governor of Hidalgo. "We haven't even begun to calculate the number of victims."

In all, according to tallies from state, local and federal officials, 218 have died and more than 150,000 people were forced from their homes by rising floodwaters and dangerous landslides in five states. At least 166 people were reported dead in Puebla state and 50 were killed in the Gulf of Mexico coast state of Veracruz. Hidalgo, Tabasco and Chiapas states also recorded fatalities.

All of the states are on the Gulf coast or are in the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range, areas which have been lashed with driving rains since Saturday, when a tropical depression formed over the Gulf and stalled. The depression dissipated Wednesday, but not before some areas received as much as two feet of rain in two days.

In Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco state, hundreds of residents huddled on their roofs for two days awaiting rescue after two large rivers spilled over their banks and flooded about three-quarters of the city. Civic officials said it was the worst flooding in 40 years.

Other states in the region, including Michoacan, Jalisco, Oaxaca and Tlaxcala, also reported flash floods, mudslides and washed-out roads.

"This has been a titanic ordeal," said Sanchez, the Teziutlan mayor. "When you consider that 3-year-olds, 1-month-old babies and a handful of 12-year-old children died, that's when you can't believe your eyes. There was one case where only one person of a 17-member family was left alive."

"We were completely isolated until today," he said. "The rains broke the water system, the roads and all the bridges. There were 70 landslides in one day. . . . The geography of the whole town completely changed."

Correspondent Molly Moore in Tulancingo contributed to this report.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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