(AFP) – 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.