LA PLATA, Argentina (AP) — Argentine police and soldiers searched house to house, in creeks and culverts and even in trees for bodies as more than 20 people remained missing Thursday from floods that killed at least 55 people in the province and city of Buenos Aires.
The torrential rains stopped and the waters mostly receded Thursday, but a public health and safety crisis gripped this provincial capital of nearly 1 million people, where thousands remained without power or safe drinking water.
Many people barely escaped after seeing everything they own disappear under water reeking with sewage and fuel that rose more than six feet (nearly two meters) high inside some homes.
The wreckage left behind was overwhelming: piles of broken furniture, overturned cars, ruined food and other debris.
“There is no water, there is no electricity. We have nothing,” said Nelly Cerrado, who was looking for donated clothing at a local school. “Terrible, terrible what we are going through. And no one comes. No one. Because here, it is neighbors who have to do everything, the leaders and people from the school.”
The nearby Ensenada refinery, Argentina’s largest, remained offline after flooding caused a fire that took hours to quench in the middle of the rainstorm, the state-run YPF oil company said.
Buenos Aires provincial Gov. Daniel Scioli said Thursday that the death toll had risen to 49 people in La Plata, following six deaths in the national capital from flooding two days earlier.
A store and an elementary school were looted, but police and troops helped residents guard neighborhoods overnight to prevent more crimes, Scioli said. In addition to 750 provincial police officers, the national government sent in army, coast guard, police and social welfare workers, he said.
“The humanitarian question comes first. The material questions will be resolved in time. For this reason we’ve planned several lines of action so that the people have the support, the tranquility and the security that they’ll be able to recover what they’ve lost for this tragedy. I will apply the necessary resources,” Scioli promised.
Scioli said four mobile hospitals have been activated and government workers were handing out water, canned food and clothing at dozens of shelters.
Provincial Health Minister Alejandro Collia said hepatitis shots were being given at 33 evacuation centers, and that the flooded neighborhoods would be sprayed to kill mosquitoes that spread dengue fever.
Scioli also thanked Pope Francis for sending a message of support. The governor said “this has to give us all the strength to accompany these families.”
Argentina’s weather service had warned of severe thunderstorms, but nothing like rainfall that fell this week.
More than 16 inches (400 millimeters) drenched La Plata in just a few hours late Tuesday and early Wednesday — more than has ever been recorded there for the entire month of April.
In both Buenos Aires and La Plata, sewage and storm drain systems were overwhelmed, and low-lying neighborhoods looked something like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, with all but the upper parts of houses under water.
And in both cities, politicians sought to fix blame on their rivals as residents complained that government in general was ill-prepared and providing insufficient help.
It didn’t help that the mayors of both cities were vacationing in Brazil when disaster struck.
Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri said President Cristina Fernandez needs to foster expensive public works projects to cope with storms that will become more frequent due to climate change.
La Plata Mayor Pablo Bruera, meanwhile, arrived home to an additional, self-inflicted disaster: While he was in Brazil, a tweet sent from his official Twitter account falsely claimed he had been “checking on evacuation centers since last night.” The tweet even included an old picture of Bruera handing out bottled water.
Bruera told reporters Thursday that he would not resign over the false claim, and that he had instead fired the people responsible for what he called a “mistake by my communications team.”
Associated Press Writer Michael Warren in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.