Record floods leave a million Mexicans homeless

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The Independent Online

One million people made homeless by the worst floods in Mexico's history are bracing themselves for an even greater disaster today. Rivers are continuing to rise in the low-lying state of Tabasco and more heavy rains are forecast.

Four-fifths of the state, on the Gulf of Mexico, are already under up to 20 feet of water after a week of torrential rains. The largely abandoned capital, Villahermosa, resembles New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, with only a few rooftops poking out of the muddy waters.

"The level of disaster just keeps growing," said Edgar Rosas, who works for the Red Cross in the capital. Supplies of food, fuel, medicine and drinking water are running low, and the country's Deputy Health Secretary, Mauricio Hernandez, has warned of the spread of cholera and other diseases.

But the escalating Mexican crisis is only the worst of a series of inundations around the world this weekend in what has been a particularly bad year, as global warming takes hold.

At least 122 people are dead in Haiti and the Dominican Republic after flooding caused by Hurricane Noel, the deadliest Atlantic storm of the year. At least 18 more have been killed in Vietnam in the third serious inundation within a month. UN officials say that this year has seen a record number of disasters so far, with scores of millions of people affected in the Indian subcontinent and more than 20 African countries.

Marshy, oil-rich Tabasco is used to flooding, but never as bad as this. Mexico's Interior Minister, Francisco Ramirez, admitted yesterday that the extent of the disaster had taken the government by surprise. The state Governor, Andres Granier, said: "We are fighting a monster."

He added: "All the crops have been lost, the state's industries are under water, and local broadcasters can't transmit information without electricity. New Orleans was small compared to this."

In all, some 850 towns have been flooded, 150 hospitals and clinics are out of action, and half of the entire country's oil production has been shut down. The country's President, Felipe Calderon, has ordered the entire air force to fly supplies into – and people out of – the disaster area. Stranded survivors are being rescued from rooftops by helicopters or boats, or are trying to swim to safety through snake-infested waters.

The official death toll, optimistically, stood at one yesterday, but this is expected to rise precipitously; hundreds of people are already reported missing.

The flooding began when heavy rainfall swelled the Grijalva, Carrizal and Puxcatan rivers, causing them to burst their banks. By Friday night, the Grijalva was more than two feet above its highest recorded level. It is continuing to rise, and more heavy rain is forecast. There is further flooding in the neighbouring state of Chiapas.

In the Caribbean, islanders are clearing up after the devastation of Hurricane Noel, which was heading up the coast of North America towards Nova Scotia yesterday after killing at least 79 people in the Dominican Republic and another 43 in Haiti. The US Coastguard warned shipping off the country's east coast to get into port, and construction sites in New York city were instructed to batten down their equipment.

Across the world, rivers have risen to record levels this year. In Vietnam, further heavy rains have raised the death toll from flooding since the beginning of October to 132.

This year has already seen Africa's worst-ever floods, which affected 1.5 million people in 22 countries, while the UN estimates that a staggering 66 million have been hit in south Asia so far.

In all, there have been more than 100 disastrous floods – including Britain's summer inundations – around the world this year. Sir John Holmes, the UN's emergency relief co-ordinator, said that, put together, they amount to a "mega-disaster", adding: "We are seeing the effects of climate change."