Tropical Storm Agatha’s torrential rains, landslides kill 99 in 3 Central American countries

By Juan Carlos Llorca, AP
Sunday, May 30, 2010

Tropical storm kills 99 in Central America

GUATEMALA CITY — The death toll in Central America from landslides and flooding triggered by the year’s first tropical storm surged to 99 on Sunday, as authorities struggled to clear roads of debris and reach cut-off communities.

Rains from the remnants of Tropical Storm Agatha have pounded an area stretching from southern Mexico nearly to Nicaragua. They eased somewhat on Sunday, but rivers continued to rise and word of deaths from landslides was still filtering out from isolated areas.

As of Sunday evening, 112,000 people in Guatemala had been evacuated, many to shelters.

Government disaster relief spokesman David de Leon said 82 people were killed in the poor Central American country as rains unleashed lethal landslides across the country. Another 53 people were reported missing.

Agatha made landfall Saturday near the nation’s border with Mexico as a tropical storm with winds up to 45 mph (75 kph) and was dissipating rapidly Sunday over the mountains of western Guatemala.

In El Salvador, President Mauricio Funes warned that the danger had not yet passed and reported nine deaths.

“Although the storm appears to be diminishing in intensity, the situation across the country remains critical,” Funes said.

In Honduras, eight deaths were linked to the weather.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami warned that remnants of the storm were expected to deliver 10 to 20 inches (25 to 50 centimeters) of rain over southeastern Mexico, Guatemala and parts of El Salvador.

Nervous residents still remember Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which parked over Central America for days, causing flooding and mudslides that killed nearly 11,000 people and left more than 8,000 missing.

In Guatemala, 13 people died in one landslide that tore through the community of San Antonio Palopo on the steep banks of Lake Atitlan, a popular tourist attraction 65 kilometers (40 miles) east of Guatemala City.

Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom said 4.3 inches (10.8 centimeters) of rain had fallen in Guatemala City’s valley in one 12-hours period.

The rains unleashed chaos in the department of Quetzaltenango, 125 miles (200 kilometers) west of Guatemala City, where a boulder loosened by rains crushed a house, killing four people including two children. Four children were killed when rain-soaked earth gave way in the town of Santa Catarina Pinula, about six miles (10 kilometers) outside the capital.

Cesar George of Guatemala’s meteorological institute said the coastal community of Champerico had received 11.8 inches (30 centimeters) of rain in 30 hours.

Rainfall from the Guatemalan interior also flooded rivers coursing away from the storm toward the Atlantic. The Motagua River flooded 19 communities near Guatemala’s northeastern border with Honduras.

In El Salvador, there were at least 140 landslides throughout the country.

Civil defense officials said the Acelhuate River that passes through the capital, San Salvador, had risen to dangerous levels and was threatening to overflow into city streets.

Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras all declared emergencies designed to increase immediate government aid and resources.

Guatemala City’s La Aurora airport remained closed Sunday because of heavy ash that fell from last week’s eruptions of Pacaya volcano. But volcanic activity had tapered off Sunday , allowing helicopters and small planes to deliver aid to communities still unreachable on washed out roads.

Flooding and slides destroyed 505 homes in the Honduras and prompted authorities to evacuate 2,250 people.

Associated Press writers Marcos Aleman in San Salvador, El Salvador, and Freddy Cuevas in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, contributed to this report.

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