Rescue teams were searching through the debris in the Colombian town of Mocoa, where hundreds were killed in a landslide and many bodies remain buried under the mud. The president pledged that the town would be rebuilt.

Authorities declared the state of economic emergency to free up relief funds on Monday, three days after the natural disaster killed at least 273 people in south Colombia. The death toll is expected to rise as some 200 people are still believed to be missing.

About 45,000 people were affected by the landslide in the town of Mocoa, according to the Red Cross. Survivors spoke of climbing on roofs and clinging to trees to avoid being swept away by the muck.

Kolumbien Bergungsarbeiten und Wiederaufbau in Mocoa (DW/A. Sáez)At least 43 victims of the landslide were children

Ercy Lopez, 39, was left hanging on a tree after the deluge destroyed her home. Now housed in a survivors’ shelter, she said rescuers were still looking for her 22-year old daughter, Diana Vanesa.

“The hopes of finding her alive are slim now,” she told the AFP news agency.

‘I sneezed out mud’

Another survivor, Carlos Acosta, also said he managed to hold on to a tree branch during the event.

“I was dying due to a lack of air – so what did I do? I stuck my finger in my mouth and vomited a lot of mud,” the 25-year-old said. “I sneezed out mud until I could breathe again.”

While hundreds of rescuers were using heavy machinery to look for survivors, some of the families had already started burying the first identified victims. The government has pledged to cover hospital and funeral costs.

Fighting diseases

Officials also declared a public health and safety emergency and started vaccination to prevent the spread of diseases. Colombian President Manuel Santos said four emergency water treatment plants would be set up for residents of Mocoa.

Families of the dead are set to receive about $6,400 (around 6,000 euro) in aid.

Watch video01:25

Colombia: Relatives search for missing

The scope of the tragedy came as a surprise even in Colombia, a country repeatedly hit by natural disasters due to heavy rains and a mountainous landscape. President Juan Manuel Santos, who is personally coordinating the response at the scene, blamed climate change for the disaster and promised that Mocoa would be rebuilt. The Amazonian town had received around 10 days’ worth of rain in in just one night, causing the rivers to overflow, he said.

Mocoa has “about 10 rivers running through it,” said the mayor Jose Antonio Castro, as quoted by newspaper El Espectador.

“That means it is not a place where a town should be located.”

dj/msh (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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