Latin America reeling after deadly rains

2010-12-10 10:35

Panama City - The heaviest rains in at least a decade have left hundreds dead in Colombia, Venezuela and Panama, caused millions of dollars in damages and forced a rare 17-hour closure of the Panama Canal, officials said.

Rescuers said on Thursday they have recovered 55 bodies out of 121 believed to be buried alive in a massive weekend mudslide in northwestern Colombia. The Antioquia department governor's spokesperson Jorge Salazar said 23 of the victims were children.

Many of the children had participated in celebrations for their first communion near Colombia's second-largest city of Medellin.

The yearly rainy season has been exacerbated by a La Nina weather phenomenon, in which cooler-than-normal water circulates in the Pacific Ocean around the equator.

In Venezuela to the east, driving rains began receding after causing floods and cave-ins that have killed at least 35 people over the past week and left 124 000 homeless. Another six people are still missing.

Earlier in the season, La Nina's deadly havoc killed some 263 people in Guatemala and over 130 in Mexico.

Hundreds of rescue workers in Colombia battled a narrowing time window to find people still alive under the mud, combing through the mess with sniffer dogs and heavy machinery to search for the remaining 66 missing. Authorities had initially estimated that up to 200 people were caught in the avalanche.

Weather prompts truce

So far this year, the rains in Colombia have left 206 people dead, while 119 remain missing and 1.7 million were affected. Over 2 000 homes were destroyed and 275 000 were damaged, according to the latest official figures.

The leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group proposed a truce with President Juan Manuel Santos's government so that disaster response work could proceed unhindered.

In neighbouring Panama, recent floods from heavy rains have collapsed bridges, destroyed homes, cut off several communities and caused disruptions to electrical and water supply.

Authorities updated the toll to 10 from the downpours that left 4 000 people homeless.

"We will declare a state of national emergency and we will begin to bring aid and assistance to all populations that have had problems," President Ricardo Martinelli told reporters.

"These are the fiercest rains in Panamanian history since records began. Some people say it has not rained so much in the past 5 000 years."

The Panama Canal reopened earlier on Thursday after a suspension due to heavy rains that swelled nearby lakes flowing into the key transport route, which handles 5% of global trade.

It was the first time the entire canal was closed since the 1989 US invasion of the Central American nation.

The 80km man-made artery links the Atlantic to the Pacific, with around 40 ships passing through the canal each day.