ACAPULCO, Mexico – Mexican soldier sifted through tons of mud and dirt in a desperate search for victims of a massive landslide that claimed dozens of lives, as authorities looked for a federal police helicopter that went missing while carrying out relief operations on the flood-stricken Pacific coast.
The helicopter with three crew members on board was returning from the remote mountain village of La Pintada, where the mudslide occurred, when it went missing Thursday. There is still no sign of it, said Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong.
"They risked their lives all the time," Osorio Chong said. "We are truly worried."
Using picks and shovels, soldiers and farmers removed dirt and rock from atop the cement or corrugated-metal roofs of houses looking for bodies in this town north of Acapulco, where 68 people were reported missing following Monday's slide. Others carried away pieces of trees, wood and other debris.
Two bodies have been recovered, but it was unclear if they were among those on the list of missing.
In a press conference late Friday night, President Enrique Peña Nieto and several of his top ministers announced that the confirmed death toll from the flooding and landslides brought by the twin weekend storms of Manuel and Ingrid had risen to 101 from 97. The figure does not include the 68 missing.
Authorities said they have evacuated 58,000 tourists from Acapulco in Guerrero state and they will continue to fly people out of the resort until Sunday when they expect its airport to be functioning again.
"Guerrero has been the state with the biggest damage and that's why I will remain here, I will be here this weekend," said Peña Nieto.
Guerrero Gov. Angel Aguirre said authorities still haven't been able to reach two mountain communities because of bad weather.
Federal police have been helping move emergency supplies and aid victims of Tropical Storm Manuel, which washed out bridges and collapsed highways throughout the area, cutting Acapulco off by land. At least 500,000 residents of the resort city didn't have running water, authorities said.
The country's Transportation Department said that a patchwork connection of roads leading to Mexico City had been partially reopened around midday Friday. Part of the main toll highway, however, remain blocked by collapsed tunnels and mudslides, so drivers were being shunted to a smaller non-toll highway that is in better shape on some stretches.
Yet so badly damaged was that route that traffic was allowed through only in small groups escorted by federal police, and in only one direction: outward bound from Acapulco.
Thousands of cars, trucks and buses lined up at the edge of Acapulco, waiting to get out of the flood- and shortage-stricken city.
"We're a little calmer now. We've spent six days stranded, waiting to get out," said Armando Herrera, a tourist from Mexico state, outside of Mexico City, as he waited in his car to be allowed on to the newly reopened road.
Survivors of the La Pintada landslide staying at a shelter in Acapulco recounted how a tidal wave of dirt, rocks and trees exploded off the hill, sweeping through the center of town, burying families in their homes and sweeping wooden houses into the bed of the swollen river that winds past the village on its way to the Pacific.
"Everyone who could ran into the coffee fields. It smothered the homes and sent them into the river. Half the homes in town were smothered and buried," said Marta Alvarez, a 22-year-old homemaker who was cooking with her 2-year-old son, two brothers and parents when the landslide struck.
La Pintada was the scene of the single greatest tragedy in destruction wreaked by the twin storms, which simultaneously pounded both of Mexico's coasts, spawning huge floods and landslides across hundreds of miles of coastal and inland areas.
Manuel later gained hurricane force and rolled into the northern state of Sinaloa on Thursday morning before weakening over land.
Three people were reported dead in Sinaloa: a fisherman swept from his boat, a small boy who fell into a ditch and a young man whose vehicle was swept away by flood waters that reached waist-deep in some places in Culiacan, the Sinaloa state capital.
Peña Nieto said he was cancelling a trip to New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly because of the emergency. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, visiting Mexico City for a Friday meeting with Peña Nieto, offered U.S. help in flood recovery and relief efforts.
Federal officials set up donation centers for storm aid Thursday, but they faced stiff questioning about why, instead of warning people more energetically about the oncoming storms, they focused on Independence Day celebrations and a military parade that kept dozens of aircraft and emergency vehicles in Mexico City.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.