Widespread flooding sends thousands fleeing in Mexico

The Baltimore Sun

VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico -- Flooding from a week of rain has forced hundreds of thousands of people to abandon their homes and seek shelter from muddy waters that covered an estimated 80 percent of Tabasco, a state on the Mexican Gulf Coast, including most of Villahermosa, the capital, officials said.

Mexican military and government workers sent helicopters and rescue boats yesterday in an attempt to rescue tens of thousands of people trapped by floodwaters that reached the rooftops in low-lying neighborhoods. Many people reluctant to leave their homes earlier for fear of looters were stranded.

"The scene here is terrible; it's biblical," said Javier Velazco, assistant director of the Red Cross in Tabasco. "We're attending to thousands of people. We're delivering food, rope and water, but it's not enough. We need everybody's help."

Tabasco Gov. Andres Granier said half of the state's 2 million residents have been affected by flooding. Despite planeloads of emergency supplies that arrived yesterday, officials worried about shortages of food, drinking water and medicine.

"All of the crops have been lost, the state's industries are underwater, and the local broadcasters can't transmit information without electricity," Granier said.

Government workers and volunteers ferried truckloads of food and drinking water to shelters in parking structures, hospitals and 1,700 schools.

Most stores, markets and service stations were closed, creating a growing desperation among the newly homeless. Half of the telephone land lines were inoperable, and electricity was out in most of the capital, officials said.

Those who found shelter space woke up yesterday morning wrapped in donated blankets after a night on concrete floors. Some told TV interviewers that they had left behind all but the clothes they wore as they escaped. Others pointed to a box of clothes or a television that they had carried to safety.

More-affluent residents jammed hotels seeking rooms. At the airport, thousands of people waited for flights out of the city. Airlines gave preference to families with children.

TV news footage showed men, women and children clinging to makeshift rafts, utility poles and buildings. Others tried to wade or swim to safety. Helicopter views showed streets filled with brown water, with groups of people on rooftops waiting for help. Workers unloaded inflatable rafts from trucks.

One death has been confirmed, officials said, but hundreds of people have been reported missing. Mexico has yet to release damage estimates, which are expected to include millions of dollars in agricultural losses from such crops as bananas, corn and beans. Rich soil and tropical weather give Tabasco ideal farmland.

The sun was out yesterday, but forecasters predicted that an approaching cold front could bring more rain in coming days. Residents say they are accustomed to annual flooding, but not this severe. Mexico's southernmost stretch of the Sierra Madre mountains drains through Tabasco to the Gulf of Mexico.

Soldiers filled tens of thousands of sandbags over the past few days to protect the capital from the swollen Grijalva River, but the sandbag walls burst shortly after midnight yesterday, and within hours, floodwaters inundated the capital.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon said in a nationally televised address Thursday night that Tabasco residents were suffering through one of the country's worst disasters. He asked Mexicans to pitch in with donations and canceled a trip to South America to tour Tabasco yesterday.

Maria Antonieta Uribe and Sam Enriquez write for the Los Angeles Times.

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