VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico - Rescue workers and police were out in force helping flood victims in southern Mexico, as food shortages sent hundreds of hungry people on a looting rampage at a shopping center.

Around 80 percent of the Belgium-sized state of Tabasco was flooded after seven rain-loaded rivers burst their banks in the flat, flood-prone region, in its worst natural disaster in decades.

Comment: Using the word looting is a way of stigmatizing the victims of the disaster. The word looting refers to the act of stealing private property in acts of war or riots and thus a criminal act. In case of disaster where people, who are starving and who feed themselves through taking of food from stores can not be compared to war or riot situations. Especially when the food due to lack of refrigeration would go off anyway. Think about it! What would you do if you were in their place and your family were starving, the place inundated with water and the authorities unable to deliver aid?

In neighboring Chiapas state, bordering the Pacific Ocean, authorities put 30 townships with more than a million people under a state of alert Saturday after 16 rivers overflowed their banks, and reported one person killed by the floods.

In Tabasco, the floods affected more than half the state's 2.1 million population, and one death has been confirmed so far. Patrols were still searching for victims Saturday.

Many thousands of people were trapped at home. With water as deep as two meters (6.5 feet), many have desperately tried to flee, waiting as long as three days for a rescue-boat pickup from their rooftops or as they clung to tree branches.

Thousands poured into neighboring states Chiapas and Veracruz seeking refuge.

But many others holed up despite the flooding, refusing to leave at their own risk, fearing looters would take all their possessions.

Carlos Mario Ramos, 75, had been slow to leave his home, and said he was happy that "the water is down a bit. But at this rate it is going to take a week or two to go down to normal."

Drinking water and food shortages brought on by flooded roads in Tabasco have prompted several looting incidents at abandoned homes and businesses.

The worst incident took place Saturday morning when around 1,000 people overran a downtown shopping center in Tabasco, overwhelming law enforcement officials posted in the area, and making off with everything in sight, including televisions and home appliances.

"People are going hungry, we're aware of that," Tabasco Governor Andres Granier said on television after the looting incident, "but being hungry doesn't justify such behaviour and outright attacks."

Smaller looting incidents occurred Friday and police made several arrests, the governor also said.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Friday said there were 7,500 military and police staff working on rescue and security operations in Tabasco.

The floods completely wiped out crops in the region, and a farm association estimated losses at 480 million dollars.

Health officials have meanwhile started to fret about looming health risks from open sewage and the spread of disease-carrying mosquitoes. Dengue, cholera and diarrhea outbreaks now are very real possibilities, they said.

During the crisis, some 69,000 people have managed to get into some 600 government shelters, federal social development Minister Beatriz Zavala said.

"We've lost everything. We had to run out of our house because the water rushed in all of a sudden when the river broke its (man-made) barriers," Raul Fernandez said of his home in Villahermosa, under water since the floods started on Monday.

Overflowing rivers finally began to recede a bit for the first time Saturday. But forecasters said that with a cold front due to move into the area there could be even more rain in store.

Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova Villalobos admitted that shelters were jammed. He said authorities were planning to open new emergency facilities at sports arenas and possibly at a bull ring.

In the state capital Villahermosa, which has 750,000 people, several neighborhoods were under as much as two meters of water after the Grijalvo river overran its banks on Thursday.

To escape, people were traveling along the city's streets in boats as if they were canals.

The Mexican armed forces began to airlift food and medical supplies to flooded areas using C-130 cargo planes, helicopters and convoys of trucks traveling on only one route open to traffic in the area.

In Chiapas, "some 50 tonnes of food and medical relief supplies have been flown to 28 stranded communities," state civil protection deputy chief Luis Manuel Garcia told reporters.