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An avalanche of mud swept away a hillside community...

By
LUIS PENCHI

PONCE, Puerto Rico -- An avalanche of mud swept away a hillside community before dawn Monday in southern Puerto Rico, burying at least 150 people as they slept, authorities said. Most were feared dead in their crushed houses.

Police said 275 houses were crushed in the landslide on a hill in the Mameyes Portones area, but it was not known how many residents were able to escape. Rescue workers found 24 bodies and rescued an unknown number of injured.

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Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon, speaking at the disaster site in the city of Ponce, said between 150 and 200 people were trapped beneath the tons of loosened mud and rubble that collapsed at 3 a.m. Monday.

'The possibilities of rescuing people alive from the houses buried in Mameyes are extremely unlikely,' Hernandez Colon said Monday night. 'That type of soil does not allow air pockets like those that occur when concrete collapses.'

At least 36 other people were killed around the island late Sunday and early Monday by landslides and floods set off by heavy rains that began Saturday. Others were feared swept off washed out bridges and highways in their cars.

Most of the deaths occurred in or near Ponce, about 45 miles southwest of San Juan.

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The Red Cross said 4,000 people were in temporary shelters around the island of 3.2 million people. Hernandez Colon declared a state of emergency and mobilized 300 National Guardsmen to work through the night.

If the death toll of 200 in Mameyes is confirmed, the flooding would be the worst disaster to hit Puerto Rico since Hurricane San Cipriano in September 1932, which killed 225 people.

National Guard members rescued two children ages 7 and 9 at 6:30 p.m. A third person was heard calling for help but rescue workers were prevented from reaching him by the darkness and continuing rains.

'Many people were buried as they slept, judging by the way they were dressed,' police agent Jose Luis Sanchez said. 'But others apparently realized what was happening and tried to escape.'

Relief workers said the children were in stable condition although they had been completely buried by mud and rubble.

'There are dead people who we can't take out because there is too much water,' National Guard Sgt. Fernando Romagosa said.

Hernandez Colon told reporters at the site, 'It is almost impossible that anybody is alive' under the mudslide. 'Despite the difficulty, the National Guard units will continue to try to rescue the 150-200 believed to be buried.'

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Several major highways and bridges were washed out, hampering communications and isolating some towns.

National Guard Col. Gilberto Moreno described the rains, which began Saturday, as the worst since 1970.

Dozens of people died Sunday night and early Monday when their cars were swept away or plunged down embankments where bridges or highways had been washed out.

Among the dead in Mamayes were four brothers. An unknown number of injured were transported to hospitals.

Besides the Mameyes victims, three children, a baby, and their mother, were crushed when a wall in their house in Ponce collapsed under the heavy rains.

The bodies of three police officers were found inside their crushed car beneath a collapsed bridge over the Coamo River.

In the southern town of Santa Isabel, at least nine others drowned or were crushed. One person drowned when his car fell into a river and a second person was missing from the car, police said.

Other bodies were found in the towns of Aibonito, Toro Negro, and Cidra.

In Toa Baja, a town outside San Juan, dozens of familes were evacuated early Monday when the Plata River overflowed. 'It's the worst flooding we've ever had,' Mayor Victor Soto said.

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In the west, Mayaguez Mayor Benjamin Coleaguez ordered the town's sports arena converted into a shelter for hundreds of families forced to flee their homes.

Police Superintendent Andres Garcias Arache ordered all police to report to the nearest accessible headquarters.

Hernandez Colon gave government employees the day off, except for those who could help with the emergency. Education Secretary Awilda Aponte Roque ordered public schools closed so they could be used as shelters for evacuees. Many private schools also closed.

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