Chilean president describes 'bleak' scene in flood-hit north

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Santiago (AFP) - Chilean President Michelle Bachelet pointed to a "bleak" situation in the country's flood-hit north Saturday, after deadly rains swept through the normally arid area last week.

The president spent two days in the devastated Atacama region and in nearby Antofagasta, where floods left at least 10 dead, 19 missing and hundreds of people homeless. The death toll is expected to rise.

"The outlook is bleak and we need to speed things up to get to villages that remain isolated and need our help," Bachelet said.

"As we are able to reach different places, these figures are probably going to climb."

The downpour began late Tuesday in the Atacama region, home to the world's most arid desert, and lashed the area for hours, turning riverbeds that had been dry for years into torrents.

Desperate residents scrambled onto the roofs of their homes or fled to high ground to escape the floodwaters, as streets morphed into rivers that swept up nearly everything in their path.

Victor Zamora, one of the 33 Chilean miners who captured worldwide attention in 2010 after spending more than two months in a collapsed mine, lost his house in flooding that washed away most of his village.

"This is another tragedy, we have lost everything," Zamora told AFP, speaking from the town of Tierra Amarilla.

He said the waters came around 3:00 am on Tuesday when everyone was asleep. He was only able to get away with the few items he had with him.

"We've got nothing left. But me and my neighbors are trying to help each other," said Zamora, who in October 2010 was the 14th miner to be pulled safely to the surface after spending 69 days trapped deep underground.

- Historic deluge -

The interior ministry declared a state of emergency late Wednesday and invoked a constitutional clause transferring power from the regional government to the military.

After two days of rain, the sun came out Friday and revealed the extent of the destruction.

The weather service has said the rains were at least 10 times greater in volume than the region normally gets in a year.

The area has seen years of drought and was not prepared for the deluge -- the last major flood was in 1997.

A 6.0-magnitude earthquake struck Chile just north of the flooded Atacama region, but produced no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

The United States Geological Service said the quake hit at 1:36 pm (1636 GMT) at a depth of 109 kilometers (68 miles) around 240 kilometers northeast of Antofagasta.

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