Tropical Storm Agatha’s torrential rains unleash floods, slides in Central America; 16 dead

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

Tropical Storm Agatha kills 16 in Central America

GUATEMALA CITY — Torrential rains brought by the first tropical storm of the 2010 season pounded Central America and southern Mexico, triggering deadly landslides. The death toll stood at 16 Sunday, but authorities said the number could rise.

Tropical Storm Agatha was dissipating over the mountains of western Guatemala, a day after it made landfall near the nation’s border with Mexico with winds up to 45 mph (75 kph).

Although no longer even a tropical depression, Agatha still posed trouble for the region: 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, creating the possibility of “life-threatening flash floods and mudslides,” the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said in an advisory.

Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom said Saturday night that the rivers in the country’s south were flooding or close to it.

Colom said 4.3 inches (10.8 centimeters) of rain had fallen in Guatemala City’s valley in 12 hours, the most since 1949.

As of Sunday morning, 69,000 people in Guatemala had been evacuated, many to shelters. Some lost their homes the previous day in a landslide on a hillside settlement in Guatemala City that killed four people and left 11 missing, disaster relief spokesman David de Leon said.

Four children were killed by another slide in the town of Santa Catarina Pinula, about six miles (10 kilometers) outside the capital. And in the department of Quetzaltenango, 125 miles (200 kilometers) west of Guatemala City, a boulder loosened by rains crushed a house, killing two children and two adults, de Leon said.

Other evacuees were moved from their homes to avoid potential slides officials feared might still come.

Callers to local radio stations described more landslides and possible deaths, but those reports could not be immediately confirmed.

A three-story building in northern Guatemala City fell into a sinkhole but there were no reports of victims.

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

“It rained in one day what it usually gets in a month,” George said.

Colom said authorities have not been able to reach Champerico by “air, land or sea.”

In El Salvador, President Mauricio Funes declared a “red alert,” the highest level of emergency, after rains delivered by Agatha triggered at least 140 landslides throughout the country and killed two adults and a 10-year-old child. The exact cause of their deaths was unclear.

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.

In Honduras, national emergency agency Copeco reported one man was crushed to death by a wall that collapsed in the town of Santa Ana, near the capital of Tegucigalpa.

Flooding and slides destroyed 45 homes in the country and prompted authorities to evacuate 1,800 people, according to figures released by the agency.

Agatha formed as a tropical storm early Saturday in the East Pacific.

Before the rains, Guatemala already was contending with heavy eruptions from its Pacaya volcano that blanketed the capital in ash and destroyed 800 homes.

The volcano, 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.

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

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