LAS TEJERIAS: A landslide in central Venezuela left at least 22 people dead and more than 50 missing after a river overflowed, officials said Sunday, in the latest deadly disaster caused by heavy rains to hit the country.
Dozens of people have died in recent months in the crisis-hit South American nation as a result of historically high precipitation.
"We are seeing very significant damage here, human losses: so far, we have already found 22 dead, there are more than 52 people missing," Vice President Delcy Rodriguez told local media at the scene in the town of Las Tejerias. "We are working to find these people."
Houses and businesses were destroyed and felled trees littered the town's streets, which were covered with mud and debris, including splintered wood, household items and mangled cars.
"The village is lost. Las Tejerias is lost," 55-year-old resident Carmen Melendez, who has lived her whole life in the town 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the capital, Caracas, in Aragua state, told AFP.
Around a thousand people had joined the rescue efforts, Interior and Justice Minister Remigio Ceballos told AFP, as he also worked at the site.
Local residents dug through the remains of battered homes looking for loved ones, while search teams arrived with dogs hoping to find survivors trapped in the rubble.
A butcher shop that had closed due to the pandemic and which was due to reopen Monday was buried in muddy sediment that caked the refrigerators and everything else inside.
"We were waiting for the meat to be shipped in -- to start after two years closed," said Ramon Arvelo, one of the workers who was helping remove mud.
"I never thought that something of this magnitude could happen; it's a really big deal," said Loryis Verenzuela, 50, as she looked out at the devastation through tears.
"We have a huge landslide as a result of the changing climate," Ceballos said, referring to the effects of Hurricane Julia, which passed just north of Venezuela the night before.
"There was a record rainfall," he added as he surveyed the disaster site -- as much rain in one day as is usually seen in one month.
"These strong rains saturated the ground," he said.
Images taken by rescue teams' drones showed huge amounts of earth piled up in the streets as residents had tried to shovel out the meters of mud that flowed into their houses.
President Nicolas Maduro declared three days of national mourning for the victims, while Venezuelans took to social media to offer assistance to the town.
Caracas baseball team Los Leones said they would organize a collection for the victims, asking for "non-perishable foods, water and clothes."
The landslide, caused by the biggest river flood in the area in 30 years, is the worst so far this year in Venezuela, which has seen historic rain levels in recent months.
In August, at least 15 people died in the Venezuelan Andes after heavy rains triggered mud and rock slides.
And in September, at least eight people died when floods from intense rains flowed through a religious retreat in the western part of the country.
In 1999, huge landslides killed some 10,000 people in the state of Vargas, north of Caracas.