Neighbors helped rescue teams comb through mud and debris Monday for signs of dozens of people missing after a landslide swept through a town in Venezuela, killing at least 36.
More than 3,000 rescuers were deployed in Las Tejerias, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the capital Caracas, after Venezuela’s worst natural disaster in decades.
“Unfortunately, we have 36 people dead at the moment and 56 people missing,” Interior Minister Remigio Ceballos said on Twitter.
“Las Tejerias will never be the same,” said survivor Isaac Castillo, 45, a merchant in the town of some 54,000 people nestled in the mountains.
“We are leaving because recovering from this is impossible.”
Unusually heavy rains caused a major river and several streams to overflow on Saturday, causing a torrent of mud that swept away cars, parts of homes, businesses, and telephone wires and felled massive trees.
“As much rain fell in eight hours as normally falls in a month,” Vice President Delcy Rodriguez said, as she blamed the “climate crisis.”
Experts say the storm was aggravated by the seasonal La Nina weather system gripping the region, as well as the effects of Hurricane Julia, which also claimed at least 26 lives in Central America and caused extensive damage from Panama to Guatemala on Sunday.
Residents of Las Tejerias used picks, shovels, and any tools they could find to dig through a thick bank of mud deposited on the town Saturday.
Firefighters used chainsaws to clear a path through knocked-down trees that had been carried into the town.
“It came too fast, we had no time,” resident Carlos Camejo, 60, said of the mudslide.
Carmen Melendez, 55, told AFP, “The town is lost, Las Tejerias is lost,” as she waited desperately for news on the whereabouts of a missing relative.
Safety on the roof
But President Nicolas Maduro, who visited the area on Monday, insisted the town would be rebuilt.
“We take with us the pain, the clamor, the despair, the tears of the people, but they must know that Las Tejerias will rise like the phoenix, Las Tejerias will be reborn,” he said, vowing to rebuild “each and every one” of the homes and businesses destroyed.
Rodriguez, his vice president, said 317 homes were “completely destroyed” and 757 damaged by the mudslide.
Authorities erected shelters for the displaced in Maracay, capital of the affected Aragua province.
Maduro on Sunday decreed three days of national mourning.
Crews of workers with heavy machinery worked to clear the debris-covered roads, while residents battled to clean out meters of mud dumped inside their homes.
Las Tejerias resident Jose Santiago spent 40 minutes clinging to a TV antenna on the roof of his home as a torrent of mud swept through it.
“The river caught me and I couldn’t find anything to do besides climb a roof and grab onto an antenna,” said the 65-year-old, who barely escaped with his life.
Further afield, at least 26 people died across Central America when storm Julia raced across the region on Sunday.
Five army soldiers on deployment in El Salvador died after a wall collapsed on them as they were seeking shelter from the storm, which killed a total of 10 people in the country and forced some 1,000 people to seek temporary shelter.
In Honduras, Wilmer Wood, mayor of the eastern town of Brus Laguna, said two people died when Julia capsized a boat. One more person was missing.
And in Guatemala, 14 people died, eight of them in the indigenous municipality of Santa Eulalia, in the west of the country, after their house collapsed due to a landslide. Two people were missing after being swept away by floodwater.
Nicaragua’s Vice President Rosario Murillo said Julia had affected some 7,500 people, flooding 3,000 homes and damaging the roofs of another 2,000.
Julia made landfall Sunday as a Category 1 hurricane and gradually dissipated until it was downgraded to a tropical depression on Monday as it churned toward Mexico.
At the end of 2020, hurricanes Eta and Iota killed at least 200 people in Central America and caused millions of dollars in losses.
Scientists say climate change warms the surface layers of the oceans, causing more powerful, and wetter, storms and hurricanes.