TEJERIAS (Reuters) – At least 25 people died and 52 were missing after five small rivers in central Venezuela flooded due to heavy rains, Citizen Security Vice President Remigio Ceballos said in a televised address.
The downpour on Saturday night swept large tree trunks and debris from surrounding mountains into the community of Tejerias, 40 miles (67 kilometers) southwest of Caracas, damaging businesses and farmland, Vice President Delcy Rodriguez said earlier in the day.
Rodriguez said that a month’s worth of rain had fallen in just eight hours and pumps used to power the community’s drinking water system were carried away in the flood waters.
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.
“We have lost boys, girls,” the vice president said from a flooded street in Tejerias. “What has happened in the town of Tejerias is a tragedy.”
President Nicolas Maduro said in a tweet that he had designated the area a disaster zone and had declared three days of mourning.
The streets of Tejerias, a town of about 73,000 inhabitants, were filled with mud, boulders and tangled tree branches and lined by boarded-up houses, according to Reuters witnesses.
Armando Escalona, a 43-year-old taxi driver, said he was attending an evangelical church service with his family when the flood waters caught them by surprise. He said that he remembers hugging his family for a short while until an unknown object hit his head and he lost consciousness. When he woke, he couldn’t find his family.
“I lost my wife and my 5-year-old son. I can’t even talk. We were at the service and everything happened so fast,” Escalona said.
Gustavo Arevalo, a 58-year-old vendor who also volunteers for a civil defense corps, said that the waters began to rise quickly on Saturday around 6 p.m ET (1000 GMT), felling the town’s telephone antenna fell.
“As if dam water had been released,” said Arevalo, standing in the town’s center, one of the hardest hit neighborhoods.
After the flood waters receded, he tried to help others “recover what was left of their businesses.”
One of the flooded rivers, the El Pato, swept away several houses, shops and a slaughterhouse, according to search and rescue authorities.
Carlos Perez, deputy minister for the country’s civil protection system, said in a Sunday tweet that a thousand rescuers were looking for victims in the area.
The downpour also caused landslides in three other central states on Sunday morning, Rodriguez said, but claimed no victims.
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.
Reporting by Mircely Guanipa in Maracay and Tibisay Romero in Valencia, Venezuela; Writing by Vivian Sequera in Caracas and Jackie Botts in Mexico City; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Diane Craft