The Heat Is Online

Mexican Flood Kills At Least 333, Displaces 253,000 People

Misery deepens with rain in Mexico

Town evacuated as dam nears breaking point with fresh rains

Associated Press, Oct. 11, 1999

TEZIUTLAN, Mexico, Oct. 11 — It did not even have a name, the storm responsible for what the president called Mexico’s worst disaster of the decade. Its winds never reached the tropical-storm speed that would have earned it more than a number. But Tropical Depression No. 11 was deadlier than any hurricane in the region this year.

So far, officials have confirmed 333 deaths. But by all accounts the true number of dead is higher. Unofficial counts by local newspapers — based on unconfirmed accounts from local officials and witnesses — ran as high as 600.

The full scale of the disaster is only slowly becoming apparent. A series of weather fronts, capped by the tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico, dumped heavy rain on much of eastern, southern and central Mexico for a week or more. In much of the region, it continues to rain.

Washed-out bridges and roads isolated hundreds of communities. Landslides destroyed or damaged houses in dozens of towns and villages. People were carried away by floodwaters.

Even large cities, such as the Tabasco state capital of Villahermosa, were so gravely flooded that streets became canals for boats ferrying furniture from inundated houses, and citizens angry over the government's slowness clashed with police.

DAM READY TO CRACK

In Tenango, 100 miles northeast of Mexico City, a foot-wide crack appeared in the face of a turn-of-the-century, U.S.-built dam, which towers 70 feet above the town.

Authorities evacuated 3,000 residents and brought in a fleet of dump trucks to pile gravel and rock mixed with lime in front of the dam. They worked into the night Sunday. "The engineers thought it was going to break," said evacuee Jose Luis Gonzalez, 40.

In Teziutlan, where the largest number of deaths have been recorded, rain fell for 60 hours without a break — 30 inches in all, three-quarters of what New York gets in an entire year.

The rain forced closure of schools and most of the 480 clothing factories that make blue jeans and other goods for U.S. export.

DEVASTATING SLIDES

So the residents of La Aurora, a poor neighborhood built under a cliffside cemetery, were huddled at home rather than at work or school when the mudslide rolled over their houses.

The rain had been pounding for three days when Dario Padilla left his house and made the sodden trek to a shop to buy tortillas.

He was on his way back, with about 100 yards to go, when he saw the hillside above his neighborhood collapse in an avalanche of mud. Within seconds his house, the houses of two relatives and about 25 other neighbors’ homes were buried.

His wife, his stepchildren and several grandchildren were among those killed.

"It took all my family in one blow," said the 55-year-old retired postal worker, his voice breaking as he watched ambulances carry victims to the morgue and a series of funeral processions trudge into the cemetery next door. "I went in but I sank in the mud. Some neighbors pulled me out," he said.

By Sunday morning, rescue workers had pulled the corpses of 15 people from the ruins of Padilla’s house and his relatives’ two homes.

The victims included his wife, five of his stepchildren and several grandchildren and in-laws. Every member of his household was apparently killed.

THE GRIM SEARCH

On Sunday, hundreds of soldiers, policemen, firefighters and body-detecting dogs were still slopping through mud made even more sodden by more heavy rain. They scraped mud away from toppled concrete walls, then attacked the walls with clanging picks and sledgehammers until the sick-sweet smell of decaying flesh told them they were close to yet another victim.

At the town’s cathedral, the regional bishop, Monsignor Lorenzo Cardenas Aregullin, led a Mass for the victims of the disaster, and read a message of condolence from Pope John Paul II.

"Why does God conserve our lives?" the bishop asked. "So we can be human. So we can help (the victims) however we can."

Outside the cathedral, residents complained that government help had been late in coming. When neighbors were pulling bodies from the muck on Tuesday, they said, radio stations were reporting that there were no apparent problems in the region. The military, which is leading the rescue effort, didn’t arrive until Thursday afternoon.

Many have urged President Ernesto Zedillo to call for foreign aid, but Zedillo has said: "The Mexicans can do it alone."

He toured the stricken areas Friday and Saturday and pledged to send more civilian and military personnel to help the victims throughout states along the Gulf of Mexico. "We won’t fail you," he promised Saturday night.

CLASHES WITH POLICE

Angry over sandbagging that has swamped their neighborhoods and furious that the government hasn't done more to help, hundreds of people in Tabasco's flooded capital clashed Sunday with police, who beat and arrested many of them.

In Villahermosa, a city of 465,000 people that is 400 miles east of Mexico City, many weren't willing to accept promises. Much of the city has been under water for a week, and the water was rising on Sunday.

As heavy rains poured across the region, anger mounted among survivors, who accused the government of arriving late and making bad decisions.

On Saturday night and again Sunday morning, hundreds of Villahermosa residents blocked a highway in the city's north to protest government-built barriers that have kept water from pouring into certain areas, but increased the flooding in others.

Police dragged people by the hair, beat them with batons and used tear gas in an effort to break up the demonstration. They arrested at least 100 people, including eight children and a pregnant woman. "Instead of helping us, they beat us with sticks. Why?" said Carmen Arellano, 37. Most of those arrested were released, but 15 were charged with damaging federal property — the highway.

At Villahermosa's state penitentiary, 100 prisoners staged a small riot Saturday night, shouting from the prison's roof to reporters outside that the prison was flooded.

"We're in the middle of water," one screamed. "We need food and drinking water."

Gunshots were heard inside, and neighbors reported tear gas, but prison authorities denied any disturbance.

© 1999 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Time Magazine Online:Oct.11. 1999 A tropical depression raging in the Gulf of Mexico has covered the area in 2 1/2 feet of water in just a few days — more than a year's worth of rainfall.

Death toll rises after Mexico flood

More than 320 confirmed dead, more rain forecast Sunday

MSNBC -- Oct. 10, 1999

TEZUITLAN, Mexico, Oct 10 -- Mexican soldiers attacked the earth with picks, shovels and sledgehammers in search of dozens of bodies believed buried in a massive mudslide, as forecasters predicted more rain Sunday.

By Saturday morning, 88 bodies had been pulled from the mounds of mud and crushed homes in Teziutlan, 110 miles east of Mexico City.

In all, at least 321 people were confirmed dead in last week’s flooding, which President Ernesto Zedillo called Mexico’s worst disaster this decade.

But as flood victims across southeastern Mexico urged the president to call for foreign aid, Zedillo assured them "the Mexicans can do it alone."

On a tour of the disaster zone Friday, Zedillo promised the government would help rebuild houses, and ordered the military to redouble its efforts to carry aid to remote villages cut off by blocked roads and downed telephone lines. In Gutierrez Zamora, Zedillo was curt with victims who crowded around him demanding aid.

"Will you let me speak?" he told one man who repeatedly interrupted him, the Mexico City daily Reforma reported Saturday. "I’m the president of the republic. If you talk again I’ll make you pay. Shut up already."

Aid organizations set up collection centers in the capital, and appealed for donations of water, food, medicine, clothing and blankets.

More than 253,000 people have been affected by floods. Nearly 70,000 people were being housed in shelters throughout the Gulf states, the Interior ministry said.

With drinkable water scarce, officials warned of possible outbreaks of cholera. Authorities in Veracruz said they already had seen cases of dengue, a mosquito-borne illness, and "uncountable cases" of respiratory, skin, and stomach infections, the state news agency Notimex reported.

"No resource is enough to cover the totality of necessities," said Gabriel Riande Juárez, a health official in the city of Coatzacoalcos, according to Notimex. The federal health ministry said it had distributed 850 tons of medicine to six of the worst-hit states.

The number of dead found in Teziutlan included about 50 people, all in La Aurora neighborhood, where a clifftop cemetery tore down a hillside Tuesday and swept away dozens of homes in the neighborhood.

Soldiers at the scene Saturday pulled the bodies of two boys — Jose Gonzalez Trujillo, 13, and his 11-year-old brother, Pablo — from the mound of earth and tangled wreckage of homes.Their parents and four siblings, found a day earlier, were buried earlier Saturday in a simple ceremony.

Searchers located the boys after they discovered bright yellow corn meal scattered on the black mud. "Next to their beds had been sacks of ground corn," said the Rev. Daniel Lopez, pastor of the family’s parish, The Final Call Church of God.

Many families were home when the disaster hit, since schools and some factories were closed because of heavy rains.

Though sunshine broke through cloud drifts Saturday, rivers continued to rise in Villahermosa, 400 miles east of Mexico City, and flooded some of the few neighborhoods not already under water.

River levels were falling in other areas, but the National Water Commission warned that a Pacific storm threatened more rain for Mexico’s west coast, Notimex said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.