The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 6, 2004; Page A18

Storm Floods Mexican Town

31 Reported Dead; Warnings Issued for Southern Texas

By Lee Hockstader
Washington Post Staff Writer

AUSTIN, April 5 -- A flash flood in the Rio Grande Valley between southwestern Texas and Mexico swept through a Mexican border town overnight, reportedly leaving at least 31 people dead, officials said Monday.

Flood watches were posted for much of southern and southwestern Texas, including the city of El Paso, as well as southeastern New Mexico. Forecasters issued warnings of damaging hail and the possibility of tornadoes. The threatening weather was expected to trundle east across southern Texas, bringing heavy rains to Gulf Coast communities.

Mexican officials declared a state of emergency in the border town of Piedras Negras, 150 miles southwest of San Antonio, and reported that survivors were marooned on rooftops as they waited for rescuers. Piedras Negras, just across the border from Eagle Pass, Tex., was inundated, with residents stranded, as floodwaters crested over the only bridge that connects it with other towns in northern Coahuila state.

Throughout the day, authorities said as many as 75 people had yet to be accounted for, but the governor of Coahuila state said many of those originally reported missing had been located, according to the Associated Press.

Two U.S. Border Patrol helicopters, ordinarily used to patrol for illegal immigrants, were sent to help Mexican government helicopters spot survivors and direct rescuers.

"Houses were completely swept away," Marcela Aguirre, a spokeswoman for the town, told the Associated Press in Mexico. "Cars flipped over, some on top of each other. There is no power, no gas, no water."

Most of the townspeople confirmed killed were elderly, but two victims were young children, according to a local Red Cross official, Alfonso Bres. "Several senior citizens basically did not have the strength to resist," he said.

In Piedras Negras and surrounding areas, officials held out the possibility of fresh waves of water and warned residents not to return to their homes. Officials said water, power and gas had been cut in the town, and described the affected zone as a working-class area of tin-roof shacks.

The heavy rains began on Sunday, raising water levels 25 feet in the Rio Escondido, which runs through the town. At midnight, as punishing rains intensified, a flash flood swept over hundreds of houses in the neighborhood called Villa de Fuente.

On Monday, about 100 miles to the southwest, authorities in Mexican border towns raced to prepare for flooding downriver along the Rio Grande, which was expected to crest early Tuesday.

"We are evacuating those who live in the area," said Rafael Sandoval Hernandez, an official in Nuevo Laredo, just across the border from Laredo, Tex.

© 2004