PIEDRAS NEGRAS, Mexico — Five neighborhoods were evacuated early Tuesday in this border town devastated by flash flooding, while emergency crews searched for more than a dozen people still missing after heavy weekend rains.
The death toll rose to 34, city spokeswoman Marcela Aguirre said Tuesday. Many residents began burying the dead, while others returned to water-logged homes to see what they could salvage.
The rain stopped early Tuesday, but before dawn heavy downpours caused the Soldado Creek to rise, threatening neighborhoods on the northern outskirts of Piedras Negras. Most of the homes affected by heavy rains late Sunday were on the southern side of Piedras Negras, a town of 200,000 in Coahuila state, 150 miles southwest of San Antonio, Texas.
President Vicente Fox declared a state of emergency, and Coahuila Gov. Enrique Martinez called the flooding some of the worst in the history of the U.S.-Mexico border region, saying "the magnitude of destruction is enormous."
About 100 homes were severely damaged or destroyed, and thousands of people were living in makeshift shelters in municipal buildings.
Fox ordered soldiers to the area to aid in search and rescue efforts as well as begin the process of cleaning the destruction of flood waters, which carried away cars, light poles and the walls and roofs of homes and left the area littered with furniture and debris.
Some neighborhoods were without electricity, gas service and potable water, but Martinez said basic services should be restored quickly to much of Piedras Negras.
The skies opened Sunday night, unleashing heavy rains and swelling water levels by 25 feet in the Escondido River, which flows into the Rio Grande. The downpours intensified and triggered the first flooding in a nearby town.
As the rain intensified, the Escondido poured over its banks, unleashing a wall of water that engulfed dozens of houses in Villa de Fuente, a working class neighborhood of tin-roof shacks.
At a shelter waiting for emergency rations on Monday, 19-year-old Maria Melendez said she rushed outside with her three children when she heard a growing roar in the distance. The family lived in a shack of sticks and aluminum in the Colonia Perodistas, another one of the areas were floodwaters first struck.
They watched as water inundated some homes and toppling others. By the time they had returned to their house, the water was already seeping in from all directions. In a matter of minutes, their possessions had been washed away.
"Everything was turned upside down," Mendez said.
By midnight, the flooding had spread to several nearby enclaves, forcing dozens of residents to scramble on top of roofs or climb trees and light poles. There they waited for hours for emergency crews.
Flood waters receded by midday Monday, and Fox toured the area, promising to continue search and rescue efforts while also pledging to help survivors recover their homes and belongings.
"The army and all local authorities are going to find every person whose whereabouts are unknown," the president said.
A crowd of hundreds cheered the president as he spoke at a municipal gymnasium that had become a shelter where authorities distributed food, bottled water, blankets and mattresses.
Maria Concepcion Joaquin, a 32-year-old homemaker, was riding in a car with her husband, her sister and her sister's three children, ages 8, 7 and seven months when the floods struck.
They managed to abandon the car and the adults put the children on the rooftop of a nearby house, where a woman was already huddled. Seconds later the current swept them away, said Jaime Flores, Joaquin's 20-year-old nephew.
Joaquin's husband and her sister survived, but Flores' aunt wasn't so lucky. Family members discovered her body at a hospital where corpses were taken to be identified.
"Now they say they are not going to build houses in the river's flood plain," Flores said. "But why do they wait until a tragedy happens to say that?"