La Plata – At least 35 people were killed by flooding overnight in Argentina's Buenos Aires province, the governor said Wednesday, bringing the overall death toll from days of torrential rains to at least 41 and leaving large stretches of the provincial capital under water.
Gov. Daniel Scioli said many people drowned after trying to take shelter in their cars in Tolosa, an area of the provincial capital of La Plata. Heavy rains had killed at least six people in the nation's capital of Buenos Aires the day before.
Cars were flooded to their rooftops and rainwater flowed over the windowsills into many houses in La Plata. People waded out of their neighborhoods through chest-high water, and police and neighbors teamed up using rubber motorboats to evacuate families and pets to higher ground.
"Such intense rain in so little time has left many people trapped in their cars, in the streets, in some cases electrocuted. We are giving priority to rescuing people who have been stuck in trees or on the roofs of their homes," Scioli said. La Plata "has never seen anything equal" to this disaster.
The rains also flooded the country's largest refinery, causing a fire that took hours to put out. The La Plata refinery has suspended operations as a result, and Argentina's YPF oil company said it has an emergency team evaluating how to get it restarted again.
The rains — almost 16 inches in about two hours — hit provincial La Plata after causing widespread flooding and power outages and killing six people in the city of Buenos Aires the day before.
"We lost family heirlooms, appliances, clothing," said Natalia Lescano, who escaped with her family to a friend's house on higher ground. She said they had to get out by themselves, and complained that authorities weren't doing enough to rescue people.
About four more inches of rain were expected before the bad weather passes on Thursday, the national weather service said.
At least 2,500 people were evacuated from their homes in the La Plata area, which is about 37 miles southeast of Argentina's capital.
National Planning Minister Julio de Vido said about 280,000 people remained without power in the city and surrounding province of Buenos Aires, where most Argentines live. "Our job is focused on restoring service, but we're going to wait until the equipment dries to guarantee the safety of the electricity workers, because we don't want any deaths," De Vido said.
The flooding threatened to ruin food supplies across La Plata's metropolitan area, which has nearly 1 million people.
"There's no power in nearly the entire city," Casals said, adding that the flooding "wiped out the downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods such as Tolosa, Elvira, Los Hornos, with as much as 2 meters (more than 6 feet) of water, and people are on their roofs."
Many of the evacuees slept in their cars overnight. Transportation and business of all kinds in the city were at a standstill.
YPF said no injuries were caused by the refinery fire, which it blamed on "an extraordinary accumulation of rainwater and power outages in the entire refinery complex." The impact on Argentina's chronically short fuel supplies wasn't immediately clear.
The six killed in Buenos Aires included a subway worker who was electrocuted and an elderly woman who drowned inside her home. Many still had standing water in homes, basements, parking lots and storage rooms on Wednesday.
The governments of President Cristina Fernandez and Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri sought to blame each other for the chaos, and the nation's divided media focused their coverage in ways that put one side or the other in the worst light.
Macri said Wednesday that the only solution is for the constantly warring governments to work together on expensive and long-term public works projects, creating huge underground drainage pipes to carry increasingly common torrential rains out to the Rio de la Plata.
"Facing the magnitude of what we've lived through, I insist that public works are what will change this story," Macri said, describing one such project that was achieved through regional cooperation and a World Bank loan — the kind of borrowing that the government of President Cristina Fernandez has sought to avoid.
"We need to do the same with all the waterworks that are needed in the city, in greater Buenos Aires and in the province of Buenos Aires," Macri said.