The Worst Mudslides in History

Natural disasters have the ability to completely dismantle entire communities in only a matter of hours, especially mudslides as they often come without warning. Mudslides, formally known as mudflows, are events where a large amount of debris saturated with water begins to rapidly flow downhill. The worst mudslides in history have killed countless people, as the force of the flow and the potential for suffocation are both extremely high in those scenarios.

The deadliest mudslides often occur in places in the world, such as mountainous locations or cities near volcanoes, that are at a higher risk. There are various types of mudflows, from volcanic lahars to the jökulhlaups that burst from icebergs and glaciers. Mudslide deaths can easily range in the hundreds, and mudslide history is full of terrible tragedies. This list covers some of the worst mudslides of all time. 

  • 1999 Vargas Tragedy

    Date: December 15, 1999
    Location: Vargas, Venezuela
    Deaths: Approximately 30,000

    In 1999, the Venezuelan state of Vargas experienced an unprecedented amount of precipitation that led to the deadliest mudslide of all time. The Sierra de Avila mountain was soaked with inches of rainfall, which caused a series of mudflows and landslides that laid waste to entire villages. Barely 1,000 bodies were pulled from the wreckage, with the rest of the town's populations presumed dead. 

  • 1985 Armero Tragedy

    Date: November 13, 1985
    Location: Armero, Colombia
    Deaths: 25,000

    The most famous aspect of this tragedy is a young woman named Omayra Sanchez. She became the face of the Armero Tragedy after becoming trapped in debris. After days of hanging on, with rescuers unable to pull her up without causing potentially fatal injuries, Sanchez passed away. She was one of many victims of the mudslide, which was a result of the Nevado del Ruiz stratovolcano eruption in Tolima, Colombia. The eruption melted glaciers and formed muddy lahar flows. Roughly two-thirds of the residents of the town of Armero would lose their lives. 

  • 2013 India Monsoon Mudflows
    Photo: Mukerjee / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    2013 India Monsoon Mudflows

    Date: June 14 - 17, 2013
    Location: Uttarakhand, India
    Deaths: 5,748

    Mudflows and flash floods swept thousands to their deaths after a particularly torrential monsoon season struck the Indian state of Uttarakhand. It was the deadliest weather disaster of 2013, forcing some 80,000 Indians to evacuate their homes. Rescue workers struggled to recover bodies and survivors from the mud, which thickened and solidified as time went on. 

  • 2010 Gansu Mudslide

    Date: August 8, 2010
    Location: Zhouqu County, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, China 
    Deaths: 1,471

    A massive mudslide tore through villages in China's northwest Zhouqu County, killing over 1,000 people. Tens of thousands were forced to evacuate the area after heavy monsoons in a neighboring province triggered a series a mudflows throughout the region. The mudflows demolished houses and apartment buildings as they spread. Rescue efforts were stifled by thick mud unsuitable for the transportation of heavy machinery. 

  • 2017 Sierra Leone Mudslide

    Date: August 14, 2017
    Location: Freetown, Sierra Leone
    Deaths: 1,141

    More than 1,000 people were killed in Sierra Leone after mudslides struck the rural community of Freetown. Roughly 20,000 people were forced to flee the region as unstable soil still threatened the community. Intense rainfall was the culprit behind this mudflow, as the slopes of Mount Sugar Loaf became inundated with mud and water. Volunteers worked tirelessly to rescue survivors and prepare burials for uncovered victims. 

  • 2011 Rio De Janeiro Mudslides
    Photo: Agência Brasil / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0 BR

    2011 Rio De Janeiro Mudslides

    Date: January 11, 2011
    Location: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
    Deaths: 903

    Hundreds were killed across multiple townships in Brasil's Região Serrana, a mountainous region of Rio at risk for mudflows. Heavy rains exacerbated the dangerous conditions, causing the series of deadly mudslides. City health officials battled an outbreak of leptospirosis that sprung up as a result of the mudflows, with at least 51 confirmed cases. Hundreds of people were left homeless, and the government began a program to offer social benefits and welfare to those who lost their homes.