Thousands flee flooded Mexican city

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VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico, Nov 2 (Reuters) Thousands of people fled a Mexican city devastated by floods after rising waters burst through sandbag barriers today in a disaster that left most of the tropical state of Tabasco under water.

At least 500,000 people were made homeless and one person was killed in the worst flooding the swampy state has seen in more than 50 years.

The banks of the Grijalva River, which winds through state capital Villahermosa, burst after days of heavy rains.

Sandbags failed to hold back a murky, brown deluge pouring into a main street in Villahermosa, home to around half a million people.

''When will this finish?'' said resident Maria de la Luz Robles.

''This is chaotic and depressing.'' The army evacuated most of the city center yesterday night after a levee broke. Interior Minister Francisco Ramirez acknowledged the disaster took the government by surprise.

''The event overwhelmed everyone and that's why we all have to work intensely,'' he said. The city center was under between 2 meters and 6 meters of water.

Rescue workers broke windows of homes to reach stranded residents. The city lacked food, water and medicine as thousands fled in military helicopters or private trucks.

''Ten thousand have left already and more are leaving,'' said Ramon Fernandez Gorostiola, from a transportation company that gave free rides to people to get out. ''It is a critical situation,'' he said.

Tabasco Gov. Andres Granier said more than 1 million people, about half of the state's population, were affected by the flooding.

Scores called local radio programs pleading to be rescued. Many shelters were evacuated after floodwaters overtook them.

Navy helicopters rescued scores of people on Friday morning from the village of El Aguacate. They had gathered on a tiny plot of high land as flood waters rose around them.

Water half-covered several giant carved stone heads built by the Olmecs, one of the first great civilizations in the Americas, at the state's La Venta archeological site. Some of the heads are more than 3 meters tall.

The floods were triggered by storms that have wreaked havoc in the oil industry along Mexico's Gulf coast but the main oil port of Coatzacoalcos opened today after closing earlier in the week due to the bad weather.

Reuters AM GC0013

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