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Rain Hampers S. Mexico Aid Flights

September 11, 1998

TAPACHULA, Mexico (AP) _ Victims of widespread flooding in southern Mexico appealed for food and drinking water Thursday, and unconfirmed reports indicated the death toll could soar as rescue workers reach towns cut off by the deluge.

``Children are crying because they haven’t brought anything to eat,″ one man angrily told a military officer at the Tapachula Country Club, where 250 people sought shelter.

But the tragedy may be much greater along a 100-mile stretch of coastline northwest of Tapachula, where cut roads and bridges and heavy rains have made it impossible for rescue workers to operate.

A government shortwave radio operator in the town of Acapetagua, 60 miles northwest of Tapachula, told military officers in Tapachula on Thursday that 100 bodies were floating in a lagoon nearby, The Associated Press has learned.

``There are more than 100,″ the operator said in a recording obtained by the AP. ``The sea has them. They’re floating in the lagoon.″

She said villagers had pulled two bodies from the lagoon, but a strong current made it impossible to reach others.

The government has confirmed 45 deaths _ 31 in Chiapas and the rest in other states _ after a week of steady rain _ nearly two feet in some areas _ caused the worst flooding in half a century. Sixty people are reported missing in Chiapas.

Five new deaths were reported Thursday by officials, who said the bodies of two men, two women and a boy were pulled from waters in Huixtla, just north of Tapachula. Huixtla’s municipal secretary, Emir Vargas Castro, said four of the bodies were buried immediately and a wake was being held for the other.

The report from Acapetagua could not be confirmed, but government officials have said that they expected the death toll to rise dramatically once they reach towns affected by the flooding.

``This is a tragedy of enormous proportions,″ President Ernesto Zedillo said after a helicopter tour of the Chiapas disaster zone on Thursday.

He said bad weather and damaged roads were making it ``particularly difficult to reach those places we’d like to be _ the communities where the people are beginning to have, or already have, a shortage of drinking water.″

He said more than 20 helicopters were to arrive in Chiapas by Friday to help relief teams reach isolated areas.

The muddy torrents turned streets into violent rivers, sweeping away roads and bridges and tearing down walls from concrete houses.

Thousands have fled their homes. About 4,500 people sought refuge in temporary shelters and 650,000 were left without electric power.

Among the hardest towns was Pijijiapan, 50 miles north of Tapachula, where at least 18 people died, including a police officer who drowned during a rescue mission.

Most of Mexico was being pounded by storms off the Pacific and Gulf coasts, and severe flooding was reported in many areas. Forecasters predicted more rain for southern and eastern Mexico.

Seventeen ports along Mexico’s two coasts were closed to small craft and authorities suspended all fishing and ocean recreational activities.

Soldiers were sent to Zihuatanejo, some 700 miles up the coast from Tapachula, to assist flood victims.

Flooding deaths were also reported in Guanajuato, Nayarit, Jalisco and Oaxaca states.

The Red Cross appealed for donations and relief teams collected bundles of supplies in Mexico City.

Rain continued to fall Thursday in Tapachula, a city of 250,000 people 10 miles from the Guatemala border, which had received 22.5 inches of rain since Monday.

A military rescue worker, who identified himself as S. Camacho, said relief efforts were being hurt by a shortage of fuel.

``If the secretary of defense doesn’t bring us food, we’re going to eat rocks,″ Camacho said.

The state gas company Pemex said the collapse of seven bridges in Chiapas made it impossible to deliver fuel.

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