Mexican Landslide Less Deadly Than Feared

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Reports of a catastrophic rain-soaked landslide in Mexico turned out to be a bit overblown. Instead of hundreds of houses buried and as many as 1,000 people dead, authorities found fewer than a dozen people missing and possibly none dead.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

To Mexico now, where officials in the southern state of Oaxaca have changed their story. Yesterday, they declared that a mudslide had destroyed hundreds of houses and killed as many as a thousand people. But as of today, not a single body has been found and now they say the landslide damaged just five homes and left 11 people missing.

As NPR's Jason Beaubien reports, the false alarm prompted the Mexican government and relief agencies to mobilize hundreds of rescue workers.

JASON BEAUBIEN: President Felipe Calderon called the mudslide in Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec a national tragedy. He vowed to make all the resources of the Mexican federal government available to help the town. And yesterday afternoon, the president expressed his condolences to the families of the seven confirmed dead. Then a few minutes later, his interior minister announced that there were no confirmed dead.

The landslide in Tlahuitoltepec was a large one but it wasnt a disaster on the scale initially described by the Oaxacan governor, Ulises Ruiz. Governor Ruiz on Tuesday told the national media that 100 to 300 houses had been buried. He added that the death toll might top 1,000. Late last night, the governor said that hed been wrong about the scale of the disaster.

Governor ULISES RUIZ (Tlahuitoltepec): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Governor Ruiz said fortunately things werent as bad as hed been told. Ruiz said he got a phone call at 4:00 a.m. over a satellite phone saying that much of the village had been hit by a landslide. Communication lines were down and the heavy rains had also destroyed a bridge on the main road into the remote village. Ruiz said he had no way to confirm the information but he felt obligated to raise the alarm.

The first helicopters that tried to reach Tlahuitoltepec had to turn back because of heavy fog. So, for much of Tuesday, Mexican officials scrambled to get rescue crews and relief supplies together for what they expected to be a massive operation. The Mexican Army, Navy and Red Cross sent hundreds of people, search dogs, shovels and wheelbarrows to a staging area at the Mexico City airport. But the teams were never deployed.

The director of the Oaxacan fire department today sharply criticized officials in Tlahuitoltepec and Governor Ruiz for diverting emergency resources from other areas that were being hard hit by the rains.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.

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