A torrent of water from three overflowing rivers has torn through a small city in Colombia while people slept, destroying homes, sweeping away cars and killing at least 193 residents.
The incident triggered by a sudden rainstorm happened around midnight in Mocoa, a provincial capital of about 40,000 people tucked between mountains near Colombia’s southern border with Ecuador.
Muddy water quickly surged through the city’s streets, toppling homes, ripping trees from their roots and carrying a flood of rocks and debris downstream. Many residents did not have enough time to flee.
According to the Red Cross, 202 people were injured and 220 are believed to be missing.
President Juan Manuel Santos declared a state of emergency and said the death toll is likely to rise but warned against speculating how many are dead.
“We don’t know how many there are going to be,” he said when he arrived at the disaster zone to oversee rescue efforts. “We’re still looking.”
Mr Santos said at least 22 people were seriously injured and were being airlifted to nearby cities, as the small regional hospital in Mocoa struggled to cope with the scale of the crisis.
Herman Granados, an anaesthesiologist, said he worked throughout the night on victims, cleaning wounds. He said the hospital does not have a blood bank large enough to deal with the number of patients and was quickly running out of its supply. The Red Cross is setting up a special unit in Mocoa to help relatives search for their loved ones.
“In this moment, it’s chaos,” said Oscar Forero, a spokesman with the Colombian Red Cross. “There are many people missing.” Mr Santos blamed climate change for triggering the flood, saying that the accumulated rainfall in one night was almost half the amount Mocoa normally has in the entire month of March.
With the rainy season in much of Colombia just beginning, he said local and national authorities need to redouble their efforts to prevent a similar tragedy.
The crisis is likely to be remembered as one of the worst natural disasters in recent Colombian history, though the Andean nation has experienced even more destructive catastrophes.
Nearly 25,000 people were killed in 1985 after the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted and triggered a deluge of mud and debris that buried the town of Armero.