LAS TEJERIAS, Venezuela (AP) — Rescue workers using drones and trained dogs searched for survivors Monday following a massive landslide in central Venezuela, as the death toll rose to 34 and residents described harrowing tales of escape from the water and mud.
Jose Medina recalled how the water streaming into his home in the town of Las Tejerías on Saturday night had reached waist level. He and his family were trapped, he realized.
So the 63-year-old turned his refrigerator sideways, opened its door and used it as a boat for his granddaughter. Meanwhile he held on to the fridge with his wife, and pinned it to a table so that the strong currents of water would not push them downstream.
Medina described their survival as a “miracle.”
“I’m happy that we’re alive but I’m also sad,” said the retired construction worker who lost his home and all of his belongings.
His plight began when torrential rains caused by Hurricane Julia unleashed mudslides and floods that destroyed several mountainside neighborhoods in Las Tejerias.
On Monday, Venezuelan officials said at least 34 people died in the flooding and 60 are missing following the worst natural disaster to hit the cash-strapped South American country in recent years.
In Las Tejerias, a city of 50,000 people located along Venezuela’s main industrial corridor, crews were using heavy machinery to clear debris from neighborhoods whose streets were still blocked with mud. Meanwhile rescue workers used drones and dogs to find people buried under the debris.
“We are still hoping to find people that can be saved” said Vice President Delcy Rodriguez as she toured one of the neighborhoods affected by the mudslides.
For those who survived, the country’s dire economic situation will make recovery more challenging.
Medina said his pension – which is pegged to Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage – is worth just $17 a month. Now he will depend on government assistance to survive, but added that he considers himself lucky that he did not lose relatives in the mudslide.
Venezuelan authorities said 317 homes in Las Tejerias were wiped out by the mudslide and another 750 homes sustained damage.
Residents said they only had minutes to leave their homes late Saturday, as the avalanche of mud, rocks and tree logs swept over several hillside neighborhoods in the city.
Some people were praying at an evangelical church when the mudslide occurred, while others were at a children’s party residents said. Several children are among the missing.
Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro on Sunday declared three days of mourning for the victims and sent rescue workers to Las Tejerias, which lies along a highway that connects Caracas to the industrial city of Valencia. Maduro said that 11 states in the country sustained damage from floods over the weekend.
Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed from Caracas