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29 killed, 75 missing as flood hits Mexico

PIEDRAS NEGRAS, Mexico -- Torrential rains swelled a tributary of the Rio Grande by 25 feet early yesterday, causing a flash flood that inundated a Mexican border city, killed at least 29 people, and forced hundreds more into shelters.

Flood waters from the Escondido River had receded and the rain eventually stopped, allowing President Vicente Fox to visit Piedras Negras, a border city of about 200,000 people about 150 miles southwest of San Antonio. But there was a threat of more downpours, and heavy, dark clouds loomed.

Struggling to be heard over cheers and cries of "Yes, we can," the president addressed several hundred people at the municipal gym, which authorities had turned into a makeshift shelter.

"We will help each and every one of you recover your homes, furniture, belongings, and everything else you've lost," Fox said.

Emergency crews had recovered 29 bodies by yesterday evening, but were still looking for as many as 75 people who had been reported missing, according to the state attorney general's office.

Two of those killed were children, and more than half were elderly residents, Piedras Negras Red Cross president Alfonso Bres said.

The floods left houses without roofs. Walls, fences, and power poles were toppled. Battered and overturned cars were scattered through the streets.

"We lost everything, but thank God we're alive," said Oscar Tapia, 67, who carried a bucket of clothing from his house on the banks of the Escondido River. Tapia and his three sisters waded to safety after their house filled with water.

Before Fox arrived at the shelter, hundreds of people, including dozens of large families, had lined up to receive blankets, bottled water, and food.

"That river brought death with it," said Tomasa Magallanes, who sat outside the shelter with her family on two mattresses. "You could hear many screams."

The Magallaneses were rescued after spending four hours on the rooftop of their house.

Radio stations read the names of people staying at shelters to help families find missing relatives.

The heavy rains began Sunday and the downpours intensified around midnight, causing the river to overflow and flooding dozens of houses in a working-class area of tin-roof shacks within 15 minutes, city officials said.

Coahuila Governor Enrique Martinez y Martinez called the flooding some of the worst in the history of the US-Mexico border, saying "the magnitude of destruction is enormous."

Mexico's Interior Department declared a state of emergency in the area, an action that releases federal funds to help the city clean up and rebuild.

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