As survivors braved the increasingly sickening smell of decomposing flesh to find their loved ones, Colombian authorities yesterday investigated who is to blame for the devastation of a landslide that now has claimed more than 300 lives.
Colombian Comptroller-General Edgardo Maya ordered a probe to determine whether authorities in the town of Mocoa correctly enforced building codes and planned adequately for natural disasters.
“This is not about punishment; it’s about prevention,” Maya said. “What good does it do to punish people now, after [so many] deaths?”
Mocoa Mayor Jose Antonio Castro, regional Governor Sorrel Aroca and their predecessors face a separate investigation by prosecutors, according to Colombian media reports.
Meanwhile, survivors 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 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 along with 10 other family members for 46-year-old Luis Eduardo Zuniga.
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 found a team of medics and firefighters to help — seven volunteers from the town of Santander de Quilichao, a 10-hour drive away.
It did not take long for the professionals to decide that it was unsafe to continue because the remaining structure was unstable.
“We’ll have to get heavy machinery in here,” one said.
Officials late on Wednesday announced that the death toll from the tragedy climbed to 301.
In a national speech earlier in the day, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos gave the most precise figure yet for the number of missing: 314.
“Unfortunately, the number of people who lost their lives in the tragedy continues to rise,” Santos said.
Santos said 2,700 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.
“What the mudslides didn’t carry away, the thieves did,” he said.
Police reinforcements have set up checkpoints to grill anyone carrying household goods.
Broad brown swaths of debris scar the town where the mud surged through on Friday night last week, sweeping homes away and drowning whole families together.
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