SANTIAGO (Reuters) - The death toll from heavy rains and flooding that battered Chile last week has risen to 23, with another 57 still missing, and President Michelle Bachelet said on Wednesday she would cancel upcoming trips to lead ongoing reconstruction efforts.
The freak torrential downpours in the Atacama desert, normally the driest in the world, destroyed homes and bridges, cut off roads, and left thousands stranded as rivers broke their banks and flash floods dramatically filled dry valleys.
Although the rains ceased by the end of last week, the clear-up operation continues, with emergency office Onemi saying on Wednesday around 4,000 people were still in temporary housing and a night-time curfew remained in place for the worst affected areas, where looting has been reported.
The Chilean air force said on Wednesday that it was looking for a helicopter that had disappeared in the Copiapo area. It was not immediately clear who was on board, although media reported that the helicopter was privately owned and carrying out rescue operations.
Rescuers say it is highly probable that the death toll will rise as more victims are found buried under tons of mud and rubble strewn over the worst-hit areas in northern Chile.
Mines in Chile, the world's top copper exporter, have not reported any serious damage, although blocked roads forced operations to halt at some projects.
Center-left Bachelet has been keen to show she has learnt lessons after her government came under heavy fire in 2010 for a perceived slow response to a massive earthquake and tsunami.
"I have instructed the government to keep working non-stop until people's lives have returned to normal," she said on Wednesday, adding that she was cancelling international trips scheduled for next week.
She had planned to attend the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of leaders from the Western Hemisphere, in Panama and visit Ecuador.
Chile was praised for its fast reaction to a quake in the north last year.
But the government has been criticized by some Chileans for a too-slow response to the developing crisis after the floods. After a torrid month of natural and political disasters, the president's popularity rating has hit an all-time low.
(Reporting by Rosalba O'Brien and Antonio de la Jara)