At least 193 people were killed in Colombia after an avalanche of water from three overflowing rivers tore through a small city while people slept on Saturday.

The incident triggered by a sudden, heavy rainstorm happened around midnight and into early Saturday morning in Mocoa, a provincial capital of about 40,000 tucked between mountains near Colombia’s southern border with Ecuador.

The Red Cross reported about 202 people were injured and 220 are believed to be missing.


With no electricity to light in Mocoa, Colombia, authorities were forced to suspend the search late Saturday evening but vowed to continue combing through the debris at the first appearance of daylight Sunday morning.

President Juan Manuel Santos declared a state of emergency and said the death toll will likely rise but warned against speculating about how many are dead.

“We don’t know how many there are going to be,” he said of the fatalities. “We’re still looking.”

Eduardo Vargas, 29, was asleep with his wife and 7-month-old baby when he was awoken by the sound of neighbors banging on his door. He quickly grabbed his family and fled up a small mountain amid the cries of people in panic.

“There was no time for anything,” he said.

Vargas and his family huddled with about two dozen other residents as they waited there until daylight, when members of the military helped them down.

As rescuers assessed the full scope of the damage, many residents in Mocoa continued a desperate search for friends and relatives.

Santos said at least 22 people were seriously injured and being airlifted to nearby cities, as the small regional hospital in Mocoa struggled to cope with the magnitude of the crisis.

Herman Granados, an anesthesiologist, said he worked throughout the night on victims, cleaning wounds. He said the hospital doesn’t have a blood bank large enough to deal with the number of patients and was quickly running out of its supply.

The Red Cross planned to set up a special unit in Mocoa Saturday afternoon to help relatives search for their loved ones.

“In this moment, it’s chaos,” said Oscar Forero, a spokesman with the Colombian Red Cross. “There are many people missing.”

The bodies of the nearly 200 people found dead are being placed in a temporary morgue where three teams of medical examiners were working around the clock to swiftly identify the remains.

Santos blamed climate change for triggering the avalanche, saying that the accumulated rainfall in one night was almost half the amount Mocoa normally receives in the entire month of March. With the rainy season in much of Colombia just beginning, he said local and national authorities need to redouble their efforts to prevent a similar tragedy.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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