Large death toll expected from massive Alausí landslide; Cuenca rescue units arrive at the scene
Rescue teams worked through the night Sunday and early Monday following a massive landslide in the Alausí neighborhood of Pueblo Viejo. Police say that dozens of houses have been buried and that the death toll will be “tragically very high.”
The landslide buried the Pan American highway that connects Cuenca to Riobamba and points north. Alausí is 80 north of Cuenca although the driving distance is almost twice as far due to the mountainous terrain.
“Because of the magnitude of the landslide, our progress in conducting search and rescue operations will be slow,” a National Police captain said at 2 a.m. Monday. “A large part of the mountain has collapsed and covered the village and moved downhill into parts of Alausí.”
He added that six people had been rescued by midnight Sunday.
In addition to police and Alausí Fire Department personnel, dozens of area residents, many of them family members and friends of those living in the slide zone, have joined the search effort. According to the police, rescue teams from Cuenca and Riobamba arrived in Alausí before daybreak Monday.
Videos posted on social media show rescue workers and residents removing debris on the south edge of the landslide, working with flashlights and kerosene lanterns. “There are people trapped here but most of them are under many meters of rocks and soil,” one resident wrote in a Facebook comment. “This is the biggest tragedy I have seen in my life and we pray to God for those who are buried. Many families are here, crying and screaming for those they love.”
At 10:30 p.m. Sunday, the municipality of Alausí declared a 60-day emergency. “We are unsure of the total magnitude of the disaster but know that it is very large with extensive loss of life and property,” the city said a statement.
President Guillermo Lasso pledged support Sunday night, announcing the “activation of all state institutions to attend to the emergency.”
Local officials were aware of the landslide risk. On March 4, a report issued by the Alausí risk management office warned of earth movement in the area where the landslide occurred, noting large fissures in the ground and uprooted vegetation. It said that five neighborhoods in the Alausí canton were at risk and recommended further study. “Due to the instability in an area of approximately 247 hectares, there is the risk of a massive landslide,” the report said. It also noted that the Pan American highway could be affected by a major landslide.