VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico – At least 20,000 people were still trapped Monday on the rooftops of homes swallowed by water in one of the worst floods in Mexico’s history. Government officials worked furiously to distribute aid and vowed to crack down on looting. Residents were running perilously short of food and water after nearly a week of floods that destroyed or damaged the homes of as many as half a million people.
Authorities said two more bodies were found Sunday floating in the brackish waters covering much of the region. If confirmed the deaths were caused by the flooding, the disaster’s death toll would stand at 10.
Officials said the capital, Villahermosa, was still completely under water Monday, although river levels had begun to drop after rising to historic levels.
Soldiers created makeshift docks out of sandbags for boats that trolled the water-filled streets, rescuing stranded victims. Some people hitched boat rides back to homes they abandoned a week earlier to retrieve medication, clothing and other supplies before returning to shelters.
President Felipe Calderon has visited the devastated state three times pledging the government’s help.
“We are seeing one of the worst natural catastrophes in the history of the country,” he said. “Not only because of the size of the area affected, but because of the number of people affected.”
Since rivers first began to burst their banks Oct. 28, the homes of an estimated half a million people have been damaged or destroyed, and at least that many more people have been affected by severed utilities and transportation corridors, according to the government. In neighboring Chiapas state, four bridges and 180 miles of roads were washed out.
“People are fighting over food and water, and the lack of electricity and running water are making life in the city impossible,” said Martha Lilia Lopez, who has been handing out food to victims on behalf of a nonprofit foundation she heads.
Many in Tabasco remained camped out on the rooftops or upper floors of their flooded homes to guard their possessions from looters, but their resolve was running out – along with water, food and other supplies.
“We spent days without food. We thought we were going to die,” said Marta Vidal, 47, who was taken to safety by helicopter.
Daniel Montiel Ortiz, who oversaw helicopter rescue efforts for the federal police, said rescuers were now focused on “selective evacuations” – primarily of sick people – and delivering badly needed supplies to isolated communities still surrounded by water.
Some desperate residents in Villahermosa broke into shuttered stores and took food and household goods, and police reported detaining about 50 people for looting over the last couple of days. But Ortiz called those “isolated incidents.”
Tabasco Gov. Andres Granier told W Radio on Monday that at least 20,000 people were still stranded in their flooded homes because they were afraid of looters. Granier said he would crack down on anyone caught stealing.
After water covered about 80 percent of Tabasco’s already swampy coastal territory, authorities struggled to calculate the damages. Health authorities reported cases of eye, skin, intestinal and respiratory infections, but no mass outbreak of waterborne diseases that many had feared.