Flooded Mexican state struggles amid disaster

1 million homeless

shelters strained beyond capacity

November 04, 2007|By Maria Antonieta Uribe and Sam Enriquez | Maria Antonieta Uribe and Sam Enriquez,Los Angeles Times

VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico -- The newly homeless men and women of this flooded capital patiently line up to appear on a local TV station that has been broadcasting their messages day and night.

They speak quickly, mindful of others waiting. They say they're at a shelter and are OK. Some hold up handwritten signs with cell phone numbers and beg relatives to call. One woman, eight months pregnant, asks viewers for any information about her missing parents. They know it's a long shot. Few buildings have power for TVs.

But hope is all that remains for many of the estimated 1 million residents driven from their homes by flooding that still covers more than three-quarters of the Gulf state of Tabasco. Many lost their possessions in flood waters that have risen as high as three stories.

Rescuers continued to ferry stranded families from rooftops yesterday, and tens of thousands of people joined a bumper-to-bumper exodus for the higher ground of neighboring states. About half the population was said to have been displaced by flooding triggered by heavy rains this week. Eight deaths have been reported.

"We couldn't bring much," said Teresa Robles Pintado, 47, one of 800 refugees at a school serving as a shelter here. "We were rescued in small launches, and they wouldn't let us bring clothes or anything because they needed to hurry and get other people."

Government officials planned for 500 people to stay at the Jacoba Vazquez School. But a severe shortage of shelters has forced refugees to cram together, and even then there is room for only a small fraction of Tabasco's many homeless.

In Tabasco - where almost 80 percent of the state was flooded - the level of some rivers began to recede slightly yesterday. The government also said it would reduce water outflows from a dam upstream.

Still, the state capital of Villahermosa remained largely flooded and prey to horrifying rumors - that crocodiles, which normally live along the banks of some rivers, had invaded the murky floodwaters in the city's center, or that the dam upstream was about to burst.

The Tabasco state government said the dam was not in danger but had no immediate comment on the crocodile rumor. Officials instead concentrated on supplying food and water to tens of thousands of people at emergency shelters, and others who had decided to ride out the flood on the roofs of their homes in a bid to discourage looters.

Officials said they are worried about the spread of waterborne diseases as the increasingly fetid water cooked in the tropical weather. Rains returned overnight Friday, but the sun shone most of the day. Forecasters said the worst of the storms was over for now.

Artist Edna Badillo, 35, said she abandoned her third-floor apartment after the capital suffered its worst flooding early Friday. She made her decision after looking out her window and seeing dead rats among the flotsam in the brown waters.

"My boyfriend didn't want to leave," she said. "I left him the keys, packed my stuff and left. I value my life over any material things."

Another thousand Mexican soldiers arrived yesterday, bringing to 13,000 the number of soldiers, sailors and federal police helping with rescues and keeping order.

Maria Antonieta Uribe and Sam Enriquez write for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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