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World

At Least 193 Killed In Colombian Avalanche Of Mud And Water

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Tragedy has struck the Colombian town of Mocoa, which is located near the Ecuadorian border. Over the weekend, intense rains triggered landslides and massive flooding that destroyed large sections of the city. The Colombian Red Cross says that more than 200 people have died, hundreds more have been injured, and there are still many, many missing. We go now to reporter John Otis is in Bogota.

John, good morning. Bring us up to date on this situation. What do we know so far?

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Well, Lulu, Mocoa is the capital of southern Putumayo state. You know, it's really just a small town of 60,000 people. It doesn't have much infrastructure. So as you can imagine, the place has really been overwhelmed. What's happened is that heavy rains caused the Mocoa River and two of its tributaries to overflow. And that brought massive walls of mud, water, rocks and boulders sweeping through the town. From aerial pictures, it looks - it kind of looks like the river was entirely redirected through the middle of town.

And all this happened after midnight on Friday, so most people were sleeping. They were caught off guard and unable to escape. Houses, cars and bridges were washed away. And 17 neighborhoods were partially destroyed. And the town hospital and morgue are overflowing. Among the victims is a policeman who was carried away by rushing water when he tried to save a 12-year-old girl from drowning. And then there's the case of the Mocoa mayor, who is a pastor - he's homeless because rocks and mud came into his house and filled it all the way up to the ceiling.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sounds like a horrific situation. How has the government responded?

OTIS: President Juan Manuel Santos flew into Mocoa to inspect the town. He sent in the army. The Red Cross is there. There are emergency workers searching for survivors. But one of the problems is that there's no airport in Mocoa, and the main road into the town's been partially washed out. Half of Putumayo state's without power, and the drinking water supply has been totally destroyed. Now there've been some reports of people looting stores for food and water.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just briefly - you know, we've heard a lot about flooding and landslides in Latin America recently. Peru's also had massive flooding. Do we know why this is happening?

OTIS: Well, Lulu, there's been a number of reasons. But when President Santos was in Mocoa, he flatly blamed climate change. He said that's led to heavier than normal rains in Colombia. But in addition, there's been a lot of deforestation in and around Mocoa by farmers, some of them growing coca, which is the raw material for cocaine. And a lot of the deforestation has happened in the watersheds. So when heavy rains hit, you get a lot of erosion and these massive mudslides and tragedies like what we're seeing now in Mocoa.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: John Otis from Bogota, thanks so much.

OTIS: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.