Heavy rains in northern Chile leave two dead, 20 missing

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By Anthony Esposito and Rosalba O'Brien SANTIAGO (Reuters) - The heaviest rains to hit Chile's northern desert regions in 20 year have left at least two people dead and 24 missing as the torrential downpours caused mudslides and rivers to breach their banks, leaving thousands of residents stranded. The government's ONEMI emergency office reported early Thursday that nearly 61,000 people were without power and almost 50,000 lacked drinking water in the usually arid regions of Coquimbo, Atacama and Antofagasta. Television images and photos on social media websites such as Twitter showed muddy rivers rushing through city streets, bridges washed away, flooded buildings, including a hospital, and even some towns that had been partially wiped out. Onemi said that one person in Antofagasta was electrocuted on the street, while a mudslide killed another person in Atacama. Another 24 people were missing. President Michelle Bachelet traveled to the affected areas to assess damages and help lead rescue efforts. "We're doing everything humanly possible to get to where (those affected by the catastrophe) are as quickly as possible," Bachelet said. Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo said on Wednesday that a state of catastrophe had been declared and armed forces had been ordered to co-ordinate support operations and take control of public order in the worst affected area. The "very intense" rains were expected to continue for around another eight hours yet, he said. Residents of several towns were asked to evacuate. Many roads were cut off and evacuations could only be done via air transport, said Deputy Minister Mahmud Aleuy. The normally arid north is home to many of Chile's largest copper mines, which account for about a third of global supply. The torrential downpours in the world's biggest copper producer have forced companies to suspend operations at several of the area's major mines, putting an estimated 1.6 million tonnes of capacity of the red metal on hold. Fiber optics had been cut across the northern region, which was affecting communications and could affect flights, said LATAM Airlines' Chilean arm LAN. The sudden autumn downpour comes after an unusually hot, dry summer exacerbated an eight-year drought and left fields parched. The dry conditions continue in the south of Chile, where firefighters are battling nearly 40 separate blazes that are burning some 14,000 hectares, according to Onemi. The China Muerta reserve and the Conguillio national park, revered for its forests of thousand-year-old Araucarias, or monkey-puzzle trees, are among the areas affected by the flames. (Additional reporting by Antonio de la Jara, Fabian Cambero and Felipe Iturrieta; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Bernard Orr, Lisa Shumaker and Michael Perry)

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