OAXACA, Mexico (Reuters) - An early-morning landslide triggered by persistent heavy rains swept a remote area of Mexico on Tuesday, killing at least four people and burying homes in an impoverished town.
It appeared the disaster in Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, a town of about 9,000 people, was less deadly than originally feared. Officials earlier had said hundreds were dead or missing after rains brought a drenched hillside down in between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m.
Oaxaca state Governor Ulises Ruiz told local radio four people were confirmed dead and 12 were missing, backing off earlier statements there could be between 500 to 600 victims.
Blocked roads made it difficult for rescue crews to search for survivors and the unstable rain-soaked terrain also limited their use of heavy machinery.
“We hope that the people who are missing are rescued alive but ... without disregarding the people who died in this event, we think the figures will be much lower than those mentioned earlier this morning,” Ruiz said.
Local emergency officials said more than 100 people remained missing but no bodies have been recovered.
On Tuesday afternoon hundreds of soldiers and police slowly arrived in the town, some making their way by foot, and began searching for survivors.
Civil protection authorities in Oaxaca said the landslide was due to heavy rainfall from Tropical Storm Matthew, which killed 12 people in Central America over the weekend.
The landslide is another blow to Mexico as it grapples this season with unusually heavy rains that have triggered floods, forced thousands of people from their homes in vulnerable parts of the country and hit crops.
President Felipe Calderon promised support for the residents of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, home to farmers who speak Mixe, one of Mexico’s numerous indigenous languages.
“We are very saddened by this tragedy,” Calderon told reporters.
Fausto Martinez, a rescue worker with the Oaxaca civil protection force, said civil protection authorities received a call before dawn from a resident by satellite phone in the town, which is located about four hours from the state capital of Oaxaca.
“They said the mountain had collapsed and a lot of people were in their homes because of the hour,” he said.
Oaxaca, a popular destination for tourists, is also known as one of Mexico’s top growers of high-quality coffee, although it is only the country’s fourth-largest coffee producing state by volume with an annual crop of around 400,000 60-kg bags.
A top representative of Oaxaca’s coffee growers said it was too early to asses the current damages to the crop but if heavy rains continue through October, up to 20 percent of the harvest could be lost.
Reporting by Cyntia Barrera Diaz, Veronica Gomez Sparrowe, Mica Rosenberg and Jason Lange in Mexico City; editing by Missy Ryan, Anthony Boadle and Bill Trott