As survivors braved the increasingly sickening smell of decomposing flesh to find their loved ones, Colombian authorities Wednesday investigated who is to blame for the devastation of a landslide that killed 290 people.
The national comptroller, Edgardo Maya, ordered a probe to determine whether local authorities in the town of Mocoa correctly enforced building codes and planned adequately for natural disasters.
“But this is not about punishment. It’s about prevention. What good does it do to punish people now, after (so many) deaths?” he said.
Survivors, meanwhile, continued the grim search for the more than 300 missing, or defended what was left of their homes from looters. Guided by the smell of rotting flesh, desperate residents pleaded with rescue teams for help digging through the mud and rubble in the places they thought their relatives might be.
“It’s been smelling really bad here since yesterday. There has to be a body,” said a relative searching for 46-year-old Luis Eduardo Zuniga along with 10 other family members.
Digging in the mud with shovels, sticks or their bare hands, they excavated the area around the semi-collapsed house where he was last seen.
They finally persuaded a team of medics and firefighters to help — seven volunteers from the town of Santander de Quilichao, a 10-hour drive away. It didn’t take long for the professionals to decide it was unsafe to continue because the remaining structure was so unstable.
“We’ll have to get heavy machinery in here,” said one.
– Fending off looters –
Hundreds of residents were being housed in shelters. Others camped out where their homes used to be to defend what belongings they had left against looters.
“The day after the landslide we managed to get some things out of the house. But when we came back that afternoon, they had taken it all,” said Juan Luis Hernandez, 33, in the destroyed neighborhood of San Miguel.
“They went through our drawers and everything. What the mudslides didn’t carry away, the thieves did.”
President Juan Manuel Santos ordered the police to send reinforcements after residents reported looting in abandoned houses. Officers have set up impromptu checkpoints to grill anyone carrying household goods.
Meanwhile, in addition to the comptroller’s investigation, prosecutors have opened their own probe into the mayor, the governor and their predecessors, according to Colombian media reports. Mayor Jose Antonio Castro has said Mocoa should never have been built where it was.
“The town has about 10 rivers running through it,” he told newspaper El Espectador.
“That means it is not a place where a town should be located.”
– Uprooted, again –
Broad brown swathes of debris scar the town where the mud surged through on Friday night, sweeping homes away and drowning whole families together. The landslide hit after heavy rains caused three rivers to flood, strewing earth, rocks and tree debris over the area.
Mocoa was home to 70,000 people, about 45,000 of whom were affected by the disaster, according to the Red Cross.
In addition to the dead, 332 people were injured.
Hardest-hit by the tragedy are impoverished neighborhoods populated with residents uprooted during Colombia’s five-decade civil war.