chile floods
Locals gather near a flooded road after heavy rains in Copiapo city, March 25, 2015. Reuters/Stringer

The Chilean government has declared a state of emergency in the Atacama desert region after flash floods hit what is normally one of the driest regions in the world. The declaration of emergency gives control of the region to the armed forces to “safeguard public order,” a senior government official said on Wednesday, according to local media reports.

Heavy rains, which began on Tuesday, have flooded the valleys and towns in the region. Roads are blocked and power outages have been reported as authorities scramble to evacuate people. According to a government statement, over 20 people are missing in the flood-hit regions. Local media quoted police officials as saying that two people had died in the coastal town of Chanaral.

Authorities are reportedly urging people to self-evacuate to safe zones as further rains are expected in the next 12 hours, according to media reports.

“The weather situation is extremely complex. The report we have says that heavy rains will continue to fall in the area in the next eight hours,” Chile’s Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo reportedly said.

Meanwhile, President Michelle Bachelet flew to the flood-hit areas on Wednesday evening to assess the extent of the damage and expressed her “solidarity with all those affected,” according to media reports.

“We have been looking at what more we can do to reach these places and rescue people … we have been working, identifying all the means that may exist to move forward,” the government statement, released on Wednesday, stated. “We know how hard, how difficult it is for the people stranded by the floods and we are doing what is humanly possible to arrive as quickly as possible to where they are.”

The floods come even as the country struggles to control raging forest fires, exacerbated by years of drought, in the southern region of Araucania.