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Desperation sets in as flood death toll in Colombia tops 200

Residents are desperately searching their ruined homes and a local hospital for loved ones after a torrent of water, mud and debris swept through a city in southern Colombia, killing more than 200.

Neighbourhoods were left strewn with rocks, wooden planks, tree limbs and brown muck after heavy rain caused the three rivers that surround Mocoa to rise up and surge through the city of 40,000 on Friday night and early Saturday.

The deluge smashed houses, tore trees out by the roots and washed cars and trucks away. Hundreds more residents are missing or injured.

Search-and-rescue teams are combing through the debris and helping people who had been clawing at huge mounds of mud by hand.

President Juan Manuel Santos, who visited Mocoa for a second day on Sunday, declared the area a disaster zone and said the death toll stood at 210. That could still rise because there were more than 200 injured, some in critical condition and people were continuing to locate remains in the debris.

The president said on Twitter that 170 of the dead had been identified.

Dozens stood around the doorway of a hospital, hoping for news of family members who were not on the list of those confirmed dead or injured.

Others frantically knocked on relatives' doors, hoping to find someone with information about their loved ones.

The disaster seemed to hit young people particularly hard. Mr Santos said more than 40 of the dead identified so far were under 18, perhaps because youngsters were already in bed when the floodwater struck.

He said the torrent of water and debris also knocked out power in half of the province of Putumayo, where Mocoa is located, and destroyed the area's fresh water network, creating dangerous and unsanitary conditions.

Mocoa is vulnerable to flooding, surrounded by the three rivers in a natural basin created by mountains.

The danger has become worse in recent years because of deforestation, which eliminates some protection from run-off, and because many people built their homes close to the water, but the triggering event was rainfall of more than 5in that began late on Friday.

A 1989 hydrology report for the Agricultural Ministry warned that such a disaster could happen unless steps were taken to reinforce the riverbanks, channel water away from the town and restore some of the forest.

Colombian officials have pledged aid to rebuild homes, and the attorney general launched an investigation into whether local and national authorities responded adequately to the disaster.

AP

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