Tropical Storm Agatha, first of season, forms in eastern Pacific, headed toward Guatemala

Saturday, May 29, 2010

1st tropical storm of season forms off Guatemala

GUATEMALA CITY — Tropical Storm Agatha, the first of the season, formed Saturday off the Pacific coast of Guatemala, where its heavy rains dislodged a boulder that killed four people.

The poor Central American country was already contending with heavy eruptions from its Pacaya volcano that have blanketed the capital in ash and destroyed 800 homes.

Officials worried Saturday that Agatha’s heavy rains could exacerbate the damage by turning black volcanic ash into cement-like mud.

The tropical storm was centered about 105 miles (170 kilometers) west of Puerto de San Jose, Guatemala, and moving toward the northeast at 7 mph (11 kph), said the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. It had maximum sustained winds of 45 mph (75 kph).

A tropical storm warning was in effect for a stretch of coastline from El Salvador to far-southern Mexico, and the hurricane center said Agatha is expected to make landfall on Guatemala’s coast late Saturday or early Sunday.

Forecasters said its pounding rains and gusting winds were already hitting the coastline by late Saturday afternoon.

Agatha was expected to dump from 10 to 20 inches (25 to 50 centimeters) of rain and as much as 30 inches (75 centimeters) in isolated areas of Guatemala, threatening dangerous floods and mudslides.

Guatemalan disaster relief spokesman David Leon said officials worry that the rains could exacerbate the damage done by explosions from the Pacaya volcano.

Leon said two children and two adults were killed Saturday when rains generated by Agatha dislodged a boulder that crushed a house they were in. The deaths happened in the department of Quetzaltenango, 125 miles (200 kilometers) west of Guatemala City and outside the area affected by Pacaya.

Pacaya, which is just south of the capital, started spewing lava and rocks Thursday afternoon, forcing the closure of Guatemala City’s international airport. A TV reporter was killed by a shower of burning rocks.

Airport official Felipe Castaneda told reporters Saturday that the airport would be closed for the next five days.

“The work to remove the ash was going forward, but the rain has complicated it,” Castaneda said.

In El Salvador, authorities began evacuating hundreds of families in areas at risk for landslides and flooding, suspending fishing and tourism along the Pacific coast.

Five days of steady rainfall has already swollen a major river flowing through the capital San Salvador.

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