Colombian rescuers have been searching frantically for hundreds of missing people after the city of Mocoa was engulfed by a huge landslide of mud, rocks and gushing waters that swept away homes and cars and killed more than 200 people.
Juan Manuel Santos, president of the nation at the northern tip of South America, flew to the southern city yesterday to survey the crisis. Officials have counted 207 dead, with 43 children among the victims, and the death toll is expected to rise. A further 203 people are injured, many in a critical condition.
Without power, gas or telephone service and with little clean water, about 600 survivors are huddled in makeshift shelters, on high alert for any further rainfall that could trigger another mudslide.
The local hospital was overwhelmed by the number of injured, and medicine and surgical supplies were being sent to the city.
Lists of children who could not find their parents circulated on social media to try to reunite families, while about 1100 soldiers and police arrived to help the relief effort.
The disaster struck in the early hours of Saturday (local time) when the rushing waters of the Mocoa river and its tributaries converged on the city of 36,000 people, catching many people as they slept.
A policeman, 24-year-old Deciderio Ospina, was killed as he responded to calls for help. Seeing the oncoming mudslide from his patrol truck, he leapt from the vehicle. His body was found 20km away, along with another 20 victims.
One woman said she had lost 11 family members in the mudslide, including her mother. Five had been identified in the morgue and the other six were still missing. “I feel like the world is going to end,” she said.
Santos blamed the tragedy on climate change, saying the accumulated rainfall in one night was almost half the amount Mocoa normally receives in the entire month of March.
The Mocoa mudslide is the deadliest in a wave of flood-related disasters in South America in recent months. Floods and mudslides since the start of the year in Peru have left 101 people dead. In Ecuador, 21 people have died in flooding.
A landslide in Colombia’s south-west in November killed nine people, and another in October killed 10 people in the north of the country.
In Queensland, Rockhampton is bracing itself for its worst flooding in more than 60 years. Forecasters have warned the Fitzroy river will surge to a peak of 9.4m on Wednesday, an inundation not seen in the city since February 1954.
A temporary levee has been erected around the airport, which was due to close at noon local time as the waters threaten to swamp the runway.
Flooding in the city, which has a population of 80,000, is expected to affect more than 4500 low-lying homes and businesses, as well as roads and railways.
In northern New South Wales and south-east Queensland, the huge cleanup has begun after at least five people are believed to have died as a result of flooding.
Three men and two women were killed on Friday and Saturday as the extent of the weather took many by surprise despite repeated warnings from authorities.
Police today resumed searching for a man in his 60s who went bushwalking at Lamington national park, as well as 50-year-old David Heidemann and 58-year-old John Frost in Mackay.
Emergency crews found the body of 77-year-old man Nelson Raebel in south-eastern Queensland on Saturday.
Logan mayor Luke Smith said almost 290 homes in the area south of Brisbane could have been inundated by water. He said the sky would be the limit when it came to estimating the damage bill.
Lismore mayor Isaac Smith said northern NSW looked like a war zone, with an estimated 15,000 properties isolated by flooding. Water levels in Lismore peaked within a metre of the 1974 record of 12.2m on Friday.
Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull survey the damage in Lismore and Murwillumbah today, then head to Beenleigh in south-east Queensland.
New Zealand has been warned to expect torrential rain and heavy floods in Taranaki, Manawatu, Wellington and across the northern South Island when the tail of Cyclone Debbie, cause of the Australian floods, crosses the Tasman on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday.