Mexico scours for dozens missing amid floods as storms abate

LA PINTADA, Mexico Fri Sep 20, 2013 2:49pm EDT

1 of 7. Trees stand submerged in water after a river overflowed its banks in Culiacan September 19, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Fidel Martinez

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LA PINTADA, Mexico (Reuters) - Rescuers cleared mud from shattered houses on Friday, searching for dozens of people missing after a mudslide flattened their village in southwest Mexico as some of the most destructive storms to hit the country in decades abated.

Dozens of homes in La Pintada, a village about 60 miles from the beach resort of Acapulco, were swallowed up by a mudslide touched off by heavy rain and flooding at the weekend that has killed at least 100 people across Mexico and forced thousands of people to abandon their homes.

The government said close to 300 people living around La Pintada had been rescued but 68 were still missing late on Thursday. Around 20 bodies have been recovered from the shattered village, authorities said.

The flooding across vast stretches of Mexico looked set to become one of the country's most costly disasters just as the economy has suffered a sharp slowdown.

Rescue workers were also looking for signs of a helicopter that vanished on Thursday in the storm-battered state of Guerrero with at least 10 people aboard.

A Black Hawk helicopter, with two pilots and at least eight people rescued from villages outside Acapulco on board, lost contact with authorities on Thursday, Manuel Mondragon, the government's national security commissioner, told local media.

Acapulco has suffered some of the worst of the flooding that began when two tropical storms, Ingrid and Manuel, bore down on Mexico from the Pacific and the Atlantic, cutting a trail of destruction that has affected more than a million people.

Even as Manuel disintegrated after moving north on Thursday, heavy rain continued in Guerrero and Michoacan states overnight, causing river levels to rise and flooding more towns and villages. Ingrid dissipated earlier this week.

Around 40,000 tourists were stranded in Acapulco, though a significant portion of them have now been flown out.

President Enrique Pena Nieto said the storms had inflicted the worst widespread flooding damage in Mexico in recorded history, and he canceled a planned trip to the United Nations in New York next week to oversee relief efforts.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, visiting Mexico on Friday, pledged to support those stricken by the storms.

"We stand ready to help in any way we can," Biden told reporters. "In a sense, we are a single people."

CONCERNS ABOUT ECONOMY

Streets turned into cascades of mud, homes were ruined and cars silted up with floodwaters as the government struggled to reach remote villages left helpless by the storms. In some areas, crocodiles escaped lagoons to swim flooded streets.

More poor weather was headed for Mexico on Friday, with a low pressure area entering the Gulf showing a 20 percent chance of becoming a tropical cyclone over the next two days, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Still, the potential risks linked to the incoming weather front had eased overnight, the hurricane center added.

The flooding damage could hamper the Mexican economy's recovery from a surprise contraction in the second quarter, though analysts are still unsure how much it will cost.

Eduardo Reinoso, head of Mexican natural disaster risk assessment company Evaluacion de Riesgos Naturales, told Reuters the damages to Mexico would likely be comparable with those caused by Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

Along with two other storms, Wilma shaved 0.49 percent off Mexico's gross domestic product in 2005, according to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

This time could be worse, Reinoso said, noting that the economic damages from the large number of highways and bridges washed away by current flooding could surpass the cost of the hotels damaged around Cancun by Wilma.

More rains could exacerbate the toll, he added.

"All the dams in the country are practically at 100 percent. This is very serious," Reinoso said.

So far, the floods have been Mexico's deadliest since 1999, when 387 people were killed in central and Gulf states, according to the OECD.

The storms have also had a social cost.

More than 50,000 people have had to be evacuated from their homes, and Acapulco was hit by looting this week as communication breakdowns put a squeeze on supplies.

(Additional reporting by Liz Diaz, Michael O'Boyle and David Alire Garcia; Writing by Dave Graham and Elinor Comlay; Editing by Simon Gardner and Mohammad Zargham)

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