At least 58 people were killed in Salgar, Colombia, on Monday night when a mudslide triggered by heavy rains swept away dozens of ramshackle homes, regional disaster response officials said.
The officials, interviewed by the news website El Tiempo, said the death toll is likely to rise sharply because entire families remain missing.
The disaster took place around 3 a.m. local time in Salgar, about 60 miles southwest of Medellin.
Survivors told local radio they awoke to sound of a loud rumble and neighbors' shouts of, “The river! The river!” Many were barely able to gather their loved ones and get out of the way before an avalanche of heavy rock and mud overtook the homes bordering the steep Libordiana ravine.
Disaster relief authorities and police helicopters were rushing to the town on orders of President Juan Manuel Santos, who traveled to the town, to mount a search and rescue operation.
By Monday evening, Carlos Ivan Marquez, head of the National Disasters Unit, said 58 people had been killed and 37 injured, adding that more than 31 homes had been destroyed and an undetermined number of people were missing.
Gen. José Ángel Mendoza, the top police official for the area, told Blu Radio that the flooding had destroyed the town's aqueduct and led to flooding even in less hazardous parts of the town. He called on authorities to send water and food.
The town of 18,000 lies amid one of Colombia's major coffee-growing regions. Former President Álvaro Uribe, who spent much of his childhood in Salgar, announced on Twitter he was heading to the area.
Colombia's rugged topography, in a seismically active area at the northern edge of the Andes, combined with shoddy construction practices, has made the country one of Latin America's most disaster-prone. More than 150 disasters have struck the country over the past 40 years, claiming more than 32,000 lives and affecting more than 12 million people, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press