Mexico Ravaged By Floods

Jostling and elbowing one another, survivors of floods that devastated a small Mexican town crowded around military helicopters Thursday trying to flee.

Chiapas has been devastated by three tropical depressions and a tropical storm that drenched the state over the past 10 days. Rivers overflowed their banks and gulches that had been dry for years turned into roaring torrents.

As of Thursday, 162 bodies have been recovered from the floods, and hundreds more are missing, according to the government. But authorities said the toll may be much higher, since scores of communities are isolated. About 450,000 people have been left homeless.

About 400 men, women and children have been leaving in army and navy choppers every day for nearly a week in this farm community of about 10,000. Most have left with only the clothes on their backs.

One of them was Juan Manuel Villafuerte Figuero, 38, a small-scale farmer waiting with his wife and three children in the Mapastepec soccer field, where the helicopters were landing.

"We're leaving because we were left without a home, without land. We have nothing to eat, nowhere to live," he said.

"We'll look for relatives in other cities for now. Later, we hope the government will help us, even with a few sheets of corrugated metal to build a roof."

President Ernesto Zedillo traveled to the area Thursday for the fourth time since the disaster hit.

"Four days ago the situation was desperate, but now it is under control, although people are suffering greatly," he told residents of Mapastepec, located about 80 miles northwest of Mexico's Pacific coast border with Guatemala.

Experts accompanying him said 250,000 people will probably have to relocate from their lowland houses, and the government may have to build as many as 25,000 low-cost homes soon.

Aid has been pouring in from all over the country, through the Red Cross and other rescue agencies. But Chiapas authorities are having a hard time distributing it because of flooded roads, wrecked bridges and bad weather.

On Thursday, all 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies Mexico's House of Representatives voted to donate a day's pay, equivalent to about $160, to help the state.

It stopped raining overnight, but the forecast was for more heavy storms in the area.

About 30 helicopter flights were landing every day in the Mapastepec soccer field, bringing about 30 tons of food, medicine, drinking water, clothing and blankets and evacuating between 15 and 24 refugees, depending on the size of the aircraft.

Of those staying behind in the flooded town of Mapastepec, about 800 people go every day or spend the night in the town auditorium, which has been turned into a military-run shelter. Army cooks in a makeshift kitchen dole out skimpy rations of food, often nothing more than beans, tortillas, toasted bread and coffee.

Children get only powdered milk.

Mst of the refugees spend their nights on the auditorium's cement floor. A few have slung hammocks from handrails.

By Alejandro Ruiz
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