Guatemalan mudslides push Central American storm death toll above 100

GUATEMALA CITY/TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – The death toll from the calamitous storm Eta in Central America leapt on Friday as the Guatemalan military reached a remote mountain village where torrential rains caused mudslides that killed an estimated 100 people.

Chickens are pictured among debris and mud at the patio of a house damaged after the passage of Storm Eta, in Pimienta, Honduras November 6, 2020. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

Many of the dead were buried in their homes in the remote village of Queja in the central region of Alta Verapaz, where around 150 houses were swallowed by mudslides, Guatemalan army spokesman Ruben Tellez said.

The area around Queja appeared to be the site of a huge landslide on a road pass a decade ago, which killed dozens, Tellez said.

“Now with all this phenomenon it collapsed again,” he added.

Photos of the Queja landslide showed a lengthy strip of brown mud peeled from the lush green hillside. A video shared by the army showed soldiers trying to get to Queja having to haul themselves through a morass of mud with the aid of a guide rope.

Footage from another part of Guatemala showed boats ferrying villagers in flooded regions and rescue workers carrying children on their backs, wading through water up to their hips.

The army said about 100 people are believed to have died in Queja alone, though searches for survivors continue.

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei hinted the death toll could jump higher, with the number of dead and missing in Queja estimated at about 150.

‘CATASTROPHIC FLOODING’

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One of the fiercest storms to hit Central America in years, Eta on Friday dumped more torrential rain across swathes of Central America and the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) warned “catastrophic flooding” in the region would continue.

Rescue operations across Honduras and Guatemala have been slowed by destroyed roads and bridges, forcing authorities to draft in the military and use helicopters and speedboats to rescue people stranded on top of their houses by flooding.

In Honduras, about 16,000 people have been rescued in the northern Valle Sula region, authorities said. Over 5,000 people were evacuated in Guatemala, officials said.

Eta has wrought chaos since plowing into Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane on Tuesday with winds of 150 miles per hour (241 kph). It weakened to a tropical depression inland but unleashed torrents of rain on regions of Honduras and Guatemala.

“This is the worst storm Honduras has seen in decades. The damage will undoubtedly be significant,” said Mark Connolly, UNICEF Representative in Honduras, who estimated about 1.5 million children there will be impacted by Eta.

Eta’s devastation harked back to Hurricane Mitch, which killed some 10,000 people in Central America in 1998.

Bad weather is hampering rescue efforts.

“We have a lot of people trapped (whom) we have not been able to reach,” Guatemalan president Giammattei said.

At least 23 people have been killed and two are missing in Honduras, the government said on Friday evening. Many people remained trapped on their roofs, the National Risk Management System (SINAGER) said.

“We have been without food for two days … waiting to be evacuated,” William Santos, sheltering on top of a banana packing plant with about 300 people in northern Honduras, told Reuters.

REGIONAL IMPACT

High winds and heavy rain have damaged thousands of homes in Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica, forcing people to take cover in shelters.

Two miners were reported killed in Nicaragua, while in southern Costa Rica, a landslide killed two people in a house, a Costa Rican woman and an American man. Five others, including three children, died in flooding near the Costa Rican border in Panama’s Chiriqui province, authorities said.

On Friday evening, Eta was off Belize’s coast in the Caribbean, churning towards Cuba and Florida, the NHC said.

But remnants of the weather system will continue to hammer parts of Central America with flooding, it added.

Flash flooding was also possible across Jamaica, southeast Mexico, the Cayman Islands and Cuba.

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