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Mexico tries to rescue survivors as rains return

Floods that displaced hundreds of thousands threaten a health crisis and spawn looting.

By Times Wires
Published November 4, 2007


VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico - Rescue workers in helicopters and small boats scrambled to evacuate thousands of people as rains returned Saturday to Mexico's flooded gulf coast region.

Many victims have spent the better part of a week trapped by the rising waters, and authorities warned of a possible health crisis and scattered reports of looting.

The department of civil defense in Chiapas state, which borders Guatemala, reported finding seven bodies between Friday and Saturday. The dead included five adults swept away by swollen rivers, a 25-year-old undocumented Honduran immigrant who drowned while trying to cross a river, and an 8-year-old girl who fell from a bridge.

In the gulf coast state of Tabasco, emergency shelters already held 69,000 flood victims, but tens of thousands more were leaving the state entirely, as food, water and power became increasingly scarce.

Tens of thousands of residents were still trapped in their houses on Saturday by floods.

More than 7 feet of water covered the city center of state capitol Villahermosa as navy helicopters flew over the city to pick up residents from their roofs. Those who could leave their houses swam or waded through water that was chest deep in places.

The flooding is the most serious natural disaster in President Felipe Calderon's 11-month-old presidency. He flew twice to the city to see the damage.

Tabasco Gov. Andres Granier compared the city with New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and said some 80 percent of the city had been flooded.

Last week state officials said that one man had died. On Saturday, Granier said that no bodies had been discovered in abandoned houses in Tabasco. But with so many people still trapped, the death toll could rise.

Five days of record rain have swelled rivers across the low-lying state of Tabasco. The Grijalva River, one of two in Villahermosa, repeatedly overflowed its banks, pouring water into streets.

The city, with a population of about 600,000, is one of the largest in Mexico's southeast.

Those residents who could leave sought refuge in the neighboring state of Veracruz. They camped out at the airport waiting for a flight out of the city.

State Secretary Humberto Mayans said that an estimated 100,000 people in Villahermosa had nowhere to go and were wandering the city's streets.

Tons of supplies and medical aid streamed into the region aboard planes and trucks, but little food and water was available at stores in Villahermosa, where intermittent rains fell Saturday. The United States, the European Union and Canada offered aid.

Some roads were cut off by floodwaters, making it hard to distribute supplies. Elsewhere, highways were clogged with flood victims camped out on roadbeds - the highest terrain available in some waterlogged rural areas.

Navy Capt. Benjamin Mar said sailors had evacuated about 5,500 people the previous day, some of them sick after their long ordeal; many spent days on rooftops.

Federal Deputy Health Secretary Mauricio Hernandez warned of possible outbreaks of cholera and other waterborne diseases.

"With so many people packed together, there is a chance that infectious diseases could spread," Hernandez said.

About 150 of the state's hospitals and clinics were out of commission because of the flooding.

Information from the Associated Press and the New York Times was used in this report.

[Last modified November 4, 2007, 01:02:09]

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