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Teams dig in mud, rain for dead in Mexico

24 September 2013, 10:55

La Pintada - Search crews are finding the dead at a rate of fourteen hours per body, using, hydraulic equipment and anything they can muster after a massive landslide claimed half the remote coffee-growing village of La Pintada, leaving 68 people missing.

The Mexican army's emergency response and rescue team slogged in several feet of mud and incessant rain with rescue dogs, recovering a total of five bodies as of Sunday, including a man found wedged under the collapsed roof of a dirt-filled home.

Lieutenant Carlos Alberto Mendoza, commander of the 16-soldier team, said it's the most daunting situation he's seen in 24 years with the army.

"They are doing unbelievable work, hours and hours for just one body," he told The Associated Press. "No matter how hard the day is, they never get tired of working."

La Pintada was the scene of the single greatest tragedy in destruction wreaked by the twin storms, Manuel and Ingrid, which simultaneously pounded both of Mexico's coasts a week ago, spawning huge floods and landslides across a third of the country.

The official death toll has grown to 115, the Interior Ministry said on Sunday night.

"As of today, there is little hope now that we will find anyone alive," President Enrique Pena Nieto said after touring the devastation at La Pintada, adding that the landslide covered at least 40 homes.

Negligence and corruption

Survivors staying at a shelter in Acapulco recounted how a tidal wave of dirt, rocks and trees exploded through the centre of town, burying families in their homes and sweeping wooden houses into the bed of the swollen river that winds past the village on its way to the Pacific.

The scene by Sunday was desolate, a ghost town where 50 people still awaited evacuation. One man remained to care for abandoned goats, pigs and chickens that seemed disoriented as they roamed about.

When the rains get too hard, the crew has to stop for fear of being buried themselves by another slide, Mendoza said.

"The fundamental problem continues to be the rain," said Ricardo de La Cruz, national director of Civil Protection. "It complicates the rescue work not only by putting residents at risk, but the military and support crews as well."

Pena Nieto told storm survivors that La Pintada would be relocated and rebuilt in a safer location as officials responded to a wave of criticism that negligence and corruption were to blame for the vast devastation caused by two relatively weak storm systems.

"I will come to inaugurate a new La Pintada," he said. "That's a promise I'm making today to this community, which has undergone such a misfortune."

58 000 evacuated

All week in Mexico City, editorials and public commentary said the government had made natural disasters worse because of poor planning, lack of a prevention strategy and corruption.

"Governments aren't responsible for the occurrence of severe weather, but they are for the prevention of the effects," wrote Mexico's non-profit Centre of Investigation for Development in an online editorial criticising a federal program to improve infrastructure and relocate communities out of dangerous flood zones.

"The National Water Program had good intentions but its execution was at best poor."

Guerrero Governor Angel Aguirre publicly confirmed that corruption and political dealings allowed housing to be built in dangerous areas where permits should have been rejected.

"The responsibility falls on authorities," Interior Secretary Miguel Osorio Chong said at a news conference earlier in the week. "In some cases [the building] was in irregular zones, but they still gave the authorisation."

Both the federal and Guerrero state administrations are new and cited cases in the past, though Osorio Chong said that going forward, he is sure that Aguirre and the mayor of Acapulco will not allow flooded-out victims to return to high-risk areas.

Pena Nieto promised more aid after touring the damage in the northern state of Sinaloa, where Manuel hit as a hurricane on Thursday, affecting 175 000 people.

With record amounts of rain not seen since 1955, Pena Nieto said the national disaster fund would not cover the damage and urged state and local governments to quickly calculate their losses so he could adjust his proposed 2014 federal budget, which he recently submitted to congress.

The storms affected 24 of Mexico's 31 states and 371 municipalities, which are the equivalent of counties. More than 58 000 people were evacuated, with 43 000 taken to shelters.

Nearly 1 000 donation centres have been set up around the country, with nearly 700 tons of aid delivered so far. Nearly 800 000 people lost power across the country, though the Federal Electricity Commission said 94% of service had been restored as of Saturday morning.

- AP


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