VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico — Authorities opened the gates to an over-capacity dam Saturday, acknowledging that rivers already dangerously high because of weeks of heavy flooding would rise even more. Also Saturday, three more deaths were reported from relentless floods that have killed more than 400 people in southeastern Mexico.
The National Water Commission began releasing water from the Penitas dam upstream in the state of Chiapas at 2 a.m. Saturday, a move that officials said would increase river levels by .79 inches to 1.18 inches per hour.
The effects of the water release were not expected to be felt until Saturday night, and authorities said the water release would be gradual enough to avoid major damage to homes and property in Villahermosa, capital of the neighboring state of Tabasco.
But areas of Villahermosa already under as much as 6.5 feet of water were expected to see the flooding increase by an additional 20 inches.
The government issued a state of alert, and since Wednesday more than 3,000 people have been evacuated from this city of 465,000, bringing to 170,000 the total number of those displaced by flooding that began in mid-September.
Water has to be released from the Penitas dam to prevent it from breaking and creating an even greater disaster, the National Water Commission said. Officials planned to increase the dam's discharge by 24,700 cubic feet per second--about double what's normally released and 50% more than the elevated levels discharged in recent weeks.
Heavy rain and mudslides this month alone have killed more than 400 people in southeastern Mexico, according to official figures; unofficial accounts estimate the death toll to be much higher.
The death toll in Tabasco has been relatively low, but the damage has been tremendous. Six major rivers have overflowed, wiping out houses and highways and forcing the evacuation of 161,000 people.
Three more deaths occurred Friday. Two men, ages 19 and 35, were believed to have drowned in the Carrizal river, while a 55-year-old man fell from a bridge into a river and drowned, officials said.
Meanwhile, the number of deaths from a riot at Villahermosa's jail rose to nine, with seven seriously wounded. Inmates rioted Friday in the Center for Social Readaptation, where water was more than 6 feet deep and food was scarce.