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Rescuers In Colombian Town Of Mocoa Search For Flood Survivors

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some other news - a disaster over the weekend highlights the hazards of deforestation. It's a disaster in the mountains of Colombia. It's a region where more trees once kept the soil and rainwater on the mountain slopes longer. Over the weekend, flooding and landslides destroyed entire neighborhoods of a small Colombian city in a valley called Mocoa. John Otis reports on a disaster that has killed more than 250 people.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Colombian soldiers carry away the body of one of the flood victims in Mocoa, a town of 60,000 near the Ecuadorian border. With the death toll rising and scores of people still missing, officials say the destruction ranks as one of Colombia's worst natural disasters in the last two decades.

The tragedy began late Friday night with downpours that caused the Mocoa River and two tributaries to overflow. That sent walls of water, mud, uprooted trees and boulders the size of cars crashing through the town. Many victims were asleep and had no time to escape. Maria Ospina survived.

MARIA OSPINA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But Ospina said she may have lost both her daughter and her husband.

Experts say deforestation was a key factor in the catastrophe. People have cut down trees on nearby mountain slopes and in river watersheds. That's led to erosion and sedimentation in the rivers, which has made the landslides worse. Mocoa remains without electrical power or drinking water. But the government has set up a command center in the town to coordinate tasks such as food distribution and finding shelter for thousands of homeless people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: During a Sunday visit to Mocoa, President Juan Manuel Santos outlined efforts to restore electricity, rebuild bridges and to bring in more water tankers. He also promised rent subsidies for the homeless and said they would eventually receive new, government-built houses.

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SANTOS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Santos said, we want to build a Mocoa that's much better than it was before this disaster. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "WINTER OF 2011") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.