The death toll from massive flooding in Argentina has risen to 56, prompting the government to declare three days of national mourning and drawing a message of concern from Pope Francis.
Most of the victims were found on Wednesday after a second day of record rainfall in Buenos Aires and nearby La Plata, where flooding submerged cars and sent people scrambling to rooftops for safety.
At least 48 people died in La Plata, about 60km south of the capital, authorities said. La Plata is the capital of Buenos Aires Province. Six people died in Buenos Aires proper and two others in the city’s suburbs.
“The bodies began to appear as the water subsided,” Governor Daniel Scioli said, as officials confirmed the death toll and locals piled up chaotic heaps of soaked mattresses and destroyed refrigerators.
A senior city official, Santiago Martorelli, told local television the floods were a “catastrophe,” and said La Plata’s schools and government offices had been closed.
“There are people on rooftops, in trees waiting for us to rescue them,” Martorelli said, adding that firefighters, civil defense workers, police and soldiers have been deployed to the area to help in rescue operations.
The fatalities in La Plata, a bustling university city of just under 1 million people, followed at least eight others in Buenos Aires on Tuesday, when a storm knocked out power lines and downed trees.
Argentine President Cristina Kirchner made a surprise visit to La Plata, surveying the devastation by helicopter.
Kirchner spent much of her childhood in La Plata, and her mother, Ofelia Wilhelm, still lives in the same two-story home where the president grew up.
“Mom has lost her power and gas, but she does not want to leave her home because the water is close to the door, and she is afraid it might start raining again,” Kirchner told reporters.
Her office announced three days of national mourning for the victims.
Pope Francis voiced his dismay in a letter to Buenos Aires archbishop Mauro Poli, saying he was “deeply saddened” by the disaster and offering prayers for the dead.
A staggering record 40cm of rain fell on La Plata during a two-hour period late on Tuesday into Wednesday, officials said, knocking out telephone lines and leaving about half the city in the dark.
In Buenos Aires, more than 15cm of rain — an April record — fell between late Monday and early Tuesday, the weather service said.
Flood waters reached 2m in some places, turning roadways in La Plata into raging rivers.
“This has never before happened in La Plata,” Argentine Security Minister Sergio Berni said.
In nearby Tolosa, meanwhile, 50 cars and other vehicles were stuck after high water encircled part of the town, cutting off roads and preventing authorities from rescuing stranded motorists and passengers.
“We have no batteries, no power,” said Vanessa Silletti as she spoke by telephone to local radio, stranded in her vehicle with a 10-month-old infant.
“I can nurse my baby, but that’s about it. We are stuck here, powerless, unable to move,” Silletti said.
Authorities said about 2,500 people were still unable to return home as they wait for flood waters to subside.