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68 believed buried in Mexico mudslide; storm death toll rises to 97

Rescue efforts continue in La Pintada in hard-hit Guerrero state after a mudslide swept away homes. In Acapulco, anger flares amid evacuation.

September 19, 2013|By Tracy Wilkinson
  • Mexican soldiers work in La Pintada after a rain-driven mudslide swept away residents and homes.
Mexican soldiers work in La Pintada after a rain-driven mudslide swept… (Pedro Pardo / AFP/Getty…)

MEXICO CITY — Rescue teams were searching Thursday for an estimated 68 people believed buried in a mudslide after multiple storms battered large swaths of Mexico, killing nearly 100 people nationwide and leaving thousands stranded or homeless.

While much attention was focused on tourists caught in the Pacific resort of Acapulco, grimmer reports emerged from villages in that hard-hit region of Guerrero state, which were largely cut off from aid and may have suffered large-scale devastation.

Luis Felipe Puente, the federal Civil Protection coordinator, said in a television interview that the national death toll climbed Thursday to 97 people in nine states. He said authorities were searching the Guerrero town of La Pintada, where at least 58 people were reported missing after a rain-propelled mudslide. Rescue operations have evacuated more than 300 people. Later, authorities said the missing numbered at least 68.

PHOTOS: Flooding in Mexico

"We hope all [the missing] are not" dead, Puente said.

"We haven't seen bodies," Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said after flying over the region. "But there were two-story houses that are now completely covered. There was a tall church, and now you don't see a church. It disappeared."

Some residents, Osorio Chong said, were resisting evacuation. "They say, I won't go until I find my daughter, my sister."

If confirmed, the La Pintada landslide will be the single deadliest incident after twin storms assailed opposite coasts of Mexico last weekend, a rare double whammy that officials said they had not seen here in more than half a century. President Enrique Peña Nieto flew to the region Thursday afternoon.

"We have had extraordinary rains," Peña Nieto said.

In photographs of La Pintada that he and his associates displayed at a news conference, it looked as though someone had taken a giant paintbrush and swiped the verdant green countryside with a wide, harsh red stripe. That was apparently the mudslide that carried away residents, their homes and belongings.

Manuel, a tropical storm that hit Guerrero and other parts of the western coast several days ago — as Hurricane Ingrid was pummeling the eastern coast — weakened, then grew to hurricane strength, then weakened again Thursday, meteorological officials said. At its strongest, it aimed Thursday for Sinaloa state, where authorities reported extensive flooding.

In Acapulco, meanwhile, an airlift of thousands of stranded tourists, most of them Mexicans, continued. Forty-five flights ferried peopled from Acapulco to Mexico City on Thursday after landslides and a flooded airport isolated the popular resort town on a holiday weekend.

Angry that they were not getting sufficient attention, some tourists staged a roadblock protest in Acapulco, stopping military trucks that some believed were helping privileged Mexicans cut the long lines for flights.

"We are getting desperate; we have no more money," tourist Alfredo Gonzalez told reporters. "We are signed up for a military flight, but they told us there are thousands and thousands of people ahead of us."

Peña Nieto's government was coming under criticism for having failed to give sufficient warning to residents as the storms bore down on the country. Critics said the president, with less than 10 months in office, was more worried about his first performance in annual Independence Day ceremonies and neglected weather realities.

wilkinson@latimes.com

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