Venezuela crews search for missing as landslide death toll rises

Authorities say 56 people still missing after mud, rocks and debris cascaded through Las Tejerias in central Venezuela.

Rescue teams have been deployed after a landslide swept through Las Tejerias, Aragua state, Venezuela [Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Reuters]

Emergency crews are searching for dozens of missing people after a landslide fuelled by flooding and days of torrential rain swept through a town in central Venezuela, killing at least 36 people, local officials said.

Residents of Las Tejerias in the municipality of Santos Michelena, about 87km (54 miles) southwest of the capital Caracas, had just seconds to reach safety late on Saturday as mud, rocks and trees tore through the streets and their homes.

At least 36 people have been killed by the floods, up from an earlier death toll of 25, Interior Minister Remigio Ceballos told reporters on Monday, while another 56 people remained missing.

Residents used picks, shovels and any tools they could find to dig through a thick bank of mud deposited on the town Saturday. “It came too fast, we had no time,” said resident Carlos Camejo, 60.

“The town is lost, Las Tejerias is lost,” added Carmen Melendez, 55, desperately waiting for news on the whereabouts of a missing relative.

Distraught residents hug each other amid the devastation of the landslide in Venezuela.
Residents had only seconds to get out of the way as the mud tore down the mountainside and into their homes [Matias Delacroix/AP Photo]

“We have lost boys, girls,” Vice President Delcy Rodriguez said from a flooded street in Tejerias, where he said a month’s worth of rain had fallen in just eight hours.

Rodriguez said the priority was to locate people still trapped under mud and rocks throughout the town, while military and rescue personnel also searched the riverbanks for survivors.

“What has happened in the town of Tejerias is a tragedy,” she said.

Authorities have said that shelters would be set up for people who had lost their homes.

Higher on the mountainside, most of the houses were swept away, including those of a group of Evangelical Christians who were praying when the landslide hit, said homemaker Carmen Teresa Chirinos, a resident of Las Tejerias.

Families in tears hugged in front of destroyed homes and businesses. “There are a lot of people missing,” Chirinos said.

Hours earlier, Major General Carlos Perez Ampueda, the vice minister for risk management and civil protection, had said via Twitter that several people were reported missing in the El Beisbol and La Agotada neighbourhoods in the north of the town.

Dozens of homes were damaged by the landslide.

Aerial view of flooded and muddy streets in Las Tejerias, Venezuela.
The landslide was triggered when a river burst its banks after days of torrential rain, which has caused flooding in 11 of Venezuela’s 23 states [Matias Delacroix/AP Photo]

Rescuers were carrying out search operations with trained dogs and drones, Perez Ampueda said. Crews of workers and heavy machinery removed debris to clear roads and restore supplies of electricity and water.

“So many families lost their houses and I, as a businessman, lost my pizzeria,” said Luis Fuentes, who opened his restaurant two years ago. “Look, I have nothing.”

Aragua Governor Karina Carpio said the flood waters “terribly affected” 21 sectors in Las Tejerias, the capital of the Santos Michelena municipality, which has some 54,000 inhabitants.

During the past week, torrential rains have caused flooding in 11 of Venezuela’s 23 states.

President Nicolas Maduro said 20,000 officials, including rescuers and members of security forces, have been deployed to affected regions.

The deaths bring the total killed in recent weeks to at least 40 due to heavy rains caused by the La Nina weather pattern. Venezuela has faced flooding and landslides.

Source: Reuters, The Associated Press