Chile declares state of emergency in flood-hit desert region

Updated: 2015-03-26 11:19


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Chile declares state of emergency in flood-hit desert region

Locals gather near a flooded road after heavy rains in Copiapo city, March 25, 2015. Heavy rains hit Chilean northern cities at the Atacama region, in an unusual weather phenomenon, with no report of deaths or injuries, according to local media. [Photo/CFP]

SANTIAGO, Chile - Chile's government declared a state of emergency for the Atacama desert region Wednesday after flooding from heavy rains blocked roads, caused power outages and affected some 600 people in the normally bone-dry region.

Unusually heavy thunderstorms and torrential rains that began Tuesday breached the banks of the swollen Copiapo River forcing evacuations because of fears of mudslides. TV images showed brown, muddy waters flooding the streets and reaching a hospital in Copiapo city.

Local media quoted police as saying two people had been killed in the coastal town of Chanaral.

People living on the river shores were being rescued by helicopter because roads were blocked by water and mud, but some people refused to leave their homes.

Chile's state-run copper giant Codelco said its mining operations in the area have been temporarily suspended due to blocked roads, but its deposits, including the world's largest open-pit copper mine, have not been affected.

The state of emergency gives control of the region to the armed forces to ensure public order, Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo said. It was issued to expedite getting all resources possible to rescue those affected.

"The weather situation is extremely complex. The report we have says that heavy rains will continue to fall in the area in the next eight hours," Penailillo said. "We're asking the people of Atacama to self-evacuate to safe zones."

President Michelle Bachelet flew to the flood-hit areas Wednesday evening.