OAXACA, Mexico — Tons of storm-churned mud slammed into several hundred homes as residents slept early Tuesday in a village in Mexico's southern Oaxaca state. Although there were fears of large loss of life, only a handful of dead and missing were confirmed by officials who reached the site of the disaster by afternoon.
The state governor, Ulises Ruiz, said four people were confirmed dead, changing an earlier figure of seven, and members of a rescue team in the stricken town, Santa Maria de Tlahuitoltepec, reported 12 people missing. However, they were still conducting house-to-house searches.
By mid-afternoon, the first contingent of Mexican soldiers had managed to hike into the area, President Felipe Calderon said. "The commander reports serious damages but perhaps not of the magnitude originally estimated," Calderon said by Twitter.
Bad roads, spotty telephone and radio communications and persistent rain and fog were hampering rescue efforts and an attempt to better fathom the magnitude of the disaster.
Six federal government helicopters were turned back, unable to land in driving rain, and a bridge along the route from Oaxaca City, the state capital, to the scene of the disaster was washed out, state government officials said.
Following days of heavy rains spawned in part by Hurricane Karl and Tropical Storm Matthew, a hill collapsed above the agrarian Oaxaca town of Santa Maria de Tlahuitoltepec between 2 and 4 a.m. as residents slept. A 200-yard-wide landslide crashed into 100 to 300 homes, Ruiz said.
Santa Maria is a town of about 6,000 people, all Mixe, an indigenous group whose name derives from the word for "clouds" and who are often referred to as the people of the clouds, an allusion, perhaps, to just how remotely they live.
"We are sending in army equipment, other equipment, trying to reach the area," Ruiz told a television interviewer after he had spoken briefly to the mayor of Santa Maria.
Earlier, Calderon expressed condolences and dispatched interior ministry officials to the region but was forced by bad weather to cancel his own trip there.
The first photographs from the area showed smashed homes, uprooted trees and backhoes chipping away at mountains of stone and mud.
"We have maybe 1,000 people stranded, buried," Civil Protection director Carlos Alberto Ramos told Mexican television.