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Mexico landslide: Dire predictions prove to be false alarm

Mexico landslide fears of large number of deaths, turned into relief Wednesday when officials said there were no confirmed deaths - contrary to initial reports of as many as 1,000.

People remove mud after a landslide in Santa Maria de Tlahuitoltepec, Mexico, Sept. 29.

Miguel Tovar/AP

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Panicked villagers in the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico, awoke to a large crashing noise in the early hours of Tuesday – the sound of a hillside collapsing around them. One man in the remote mountainous indigenous community managed to contact state civil protection units via satellite phone.

Mexicans awoke hours later with news that up to 1,000 could have died, and the government mobilized the military, the police, and firefighters to aid in the enormous rescue effort ahead. By noon, however, the estimates had been dramatically reduced. There were 100 missing and 7 confirmed deaths and no explanation for the discrepancies, so they were simply reported as such.

By evening, when the governor of Oaxaca and Mexico's Interior Ministry called a press conference, there were no confirmed deaths and 11 missing.

These numbers could still change, especially as the landslide has made stretches of the state impassable and continuing rains has stymied the rescue effort.

But the dire predictions, which garnered worldwide news coverage for most of the day and into the evening yesterday, have given way to headlines about tragedy averted and deadly landslide not being fatal after all.

“False alarm generates national emergency,” reads the front-page headline today in El Universal, a Mexican daily.

It is a cautionary tale about the instantaneous nature of news, where consumers want information immediately. Even in a world of Twitter and instant messaging, mechanisms that have helped in numerous tragedies – such as in the Haiti earthquake when people buried under rubble texted family to alert them of their whereabouts – this proved to be a case in which only time revealed the truth.

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