Deadly storm kills more than 140 in Central America

June 01, 2010

GUATEMALA CITY: A violent weekend storm that lashed Central America killed at least 144 people, left 53 more missing and 45,000 evacuated from their homes, the Red Cross' Panama-based regional headquarters said on Monday.

"The latest reports are of 118 dead in Guatemala and 17 in Honduras, while in El Salvador the death toll as of yesterday (Sunday) stood at nine, but it may have gone higher," Red Cross Pan American Disaster Response Unit chief Paco Maldonado told AFP in Panama City.

Earlier reports put the total death toll at 118, including 92 in Guatemala, the country worst hit by the drenching storm. "Most of the fatalities were due to landslides that collapsed building and peoples' homes," said Maldonado, adding that on Tuesday his unit would start sending help to the afflicted regions.

Among the dead in Guatemala were four children in a house that was swept away in a landslide, officials here said. Tens of thousands of people were in shelters, either because their ramshackle homes had been destroyed or they were evacuated from the path of possible flooding.

International aid was beginning to step up. Some aid organizers were turning to Facebook, Twitter and other Internet social networking sites to appeal for necessities to send to populations or authorities. France said Monday it was sending humanitarian supplies, and issued a statement expressing its condolences to the affected countries.

Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom said six US military aircraft had been deployed from a base in Honduras. Mexican President Felipe Calderon, at Colom's behest, offered the airport in the border city of Tapachula for emergency flights in and out of Guatemala, Calderon's office said.

His government also expressed solidarity with Honduras, issuing a statement saying: "Mexico's government deeply laments the damage and loss, especially of human life, caused in Honduras by (the storm) Agatha." In Guatemala, which has been under a state of emergency since Saturday, 112,000 people were forced to flee their homes at peril of floods and mudslides.

 The worst storm-related disaster in Guatemala occurred in a village in Solola department where a landslide swept away 25 homes killing 15 people, with another 10 missing, according to San Antonio Palopo Mayor Andres Cumes. To prevent an outbreak of disease, bodies will be buried at once, Cumes told reporters.

Honduras and El Salvador both declared nationwide states of emergency. More than 8,000 people were forced to leave their homes in El Salvador, and more than 3,000 in Honduras, which has received 225,000 dollars in help from regional banks, in addition to 500,000 dollars and 5,000 tons of food from the UN's World Food Program.

By Monday, the worst of the storm itself appeared to have passed, with forecasts that "it would gradually keep losing force," according to Guatemala's National Disaster Coordination office. But rivers swollen to bursting point showed the danger was not over. Many towns and villages in the mountainous region had communication cut off, while bridges and roads were either destroyed or obstructed.

Guatemala City's response was hampered by a separate emergency: the eruption of a nearby volcano whose ash forced the closure of the capital's international airport since last week, when two people were also killed and three went missing. Officials said the airport should open late on Thursday.

But the director of Guatemala's national seismological institute, Freddy Sanchez, said "it's very possible there could be more violent explosions in the coming days" from the volcano. "First there was a rain of ash, and now it's water. It's one disaster after another," said one resident in the southern town of Palin, Julio Figueroa.

The World Bank said it was finalizing with Guatemala an 85 million dollars loan to help it cope with the two disasters. Agatha's effects were also felt in Mexico's southern Chiapas region, though no casualties nor damage were immediately reported. The storm made landfall late Saturday with winds of 65 kilometers (40 miles) per hour.

Though it was soon downgraded to a tropical depression, its heavy rains caused much of the damage, freeing rivers from their beds and unleashing sliding tracts of mud that swept away homes and blocked roads.


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