Chilean desert floods kill at least four

2015-03-26 19:50
Residents watch the rising flood waters of the Copiapo River, in Copiapo, Chile. (Aton Chile, AP)

Residents watch the rising flood waters of the Copiapo River, in Copiapo, Chile. (Aton Chile, AP)

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Copiap - Flash floods in a normally bone-dry region of northern Chile have killed at least four people and left 22 missing, officials said on Thursday, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency and send in the army.

The downpour began late on Tuesday in the Atacama region, home to the world's most arid desert, and lashed the area for hours, turning riverbeds that had been dry for years into torrents.

Desperate residents climbed onto the roofs of their houses or fled to high ground to escape the flood waters, which turned the streets of the area's towns into rivers that swept up everything in their path.

The interior ministry declared a state of emergency on Wednesday night and invoked a constitutional clause transferring power from the regional government to the military.

The weather forced state copper company Codelco, the world's largest copper producer, to temporarily halt operations in Atacama and the neighboring region of Antofagasta.

As Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo urged residents to evacuate, the army declared a curfew for the Atacama region and the city of Antofagasta.

About 40 000 people were left without electricity and as many or more without potable water, officials said.

President Michelle Bachelet said the downpour - equivalent to at least 10 times the previously drought-hit region's average annual rainfall - had caught authorities off-guard.

"The prior assessment was that there was an enormous drought, so rain would not necessarily be a catastrophe. It is very difficult to plan for, because there was no way to know," said Bachelet, who flew into the disaster zone Wednesday night.

"Obviously today there's a realization that once the emergency is over, defenses will need to be built up to prevent these things from happening in the future."


One of those killed in the flooding was a 34-year-old man who was electrocuted, the interior ministry said. Another, a 35-year-old man, was killed by a water tank that collapsed.

Both died in Antofagasta, a port city of about 380 000 people.

Two more victims were killed when they were swept away by flood waters in Atacama.

The heavy rains had eased by Thursday morning, but emergency workers were still scrambling to deal with the aftermath.

Fifteen helicopters were working to airlift residents out of the disaster zone, and classes were cancelled so emergency shelters could be set up in schools.

Officials said 800 people had sought refuge in emergency shelters in Atacama and 680 in Antofagasta.

Floods also cut off hundreds of residents in remote areas.

Comms cut

Social media networks were rife with messages from people trying to get in touch with their loved ones, but communications were cut off for much of the affected area.

Flights were delayed at the Calama and Antofagasta airports, hubs for the area's mining operations.

Chile, the world's largest copper producer, is responsible for about one-third of total global output, or 5.6 million tons per year.

Mining firms Anglo American and Antofagasta Minerals also suspended operations in the flood-hit region.

The area had seen years of drought, with the last major flood in 1997.

The floods in the north came as southern Chile battled devastating wildfires exacerbated by a severe drought.

The area around the Villarrica volcano in southern Chile was also placed on orange alert. The volcano has shown signs of increased activity recently, just weeks after it erupted and forced thousands of people to evacuate.

Read more on:    michelle bachelet  |  chile  |  floods

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