Guatemala Flood Toll Could Reach 1250

Authorities reaching communities previously cut off by floodwaters raised the number of Guatemalans (search) whose homes were damaged, destroyed or threatened by new rainfall to 200,000.

Emergency response teams assessed the damage to isolated villages deep in the mountains of San Marcos (search) province, near the border with Mexico, for the first time Tuesday — nearly a week after relentless rain caused flooding and mudslides.

Agriculture Secretary Alvaro Aguilar (search) said officials had reached 95 percent of the 515 estimated communities affected by flooding.

The death toll stood at 652, but the number of missing whose bodies may never be recovered rose to nearly 600, meaning more than 1,200 people may have been killed in Guatemala.

Another 133 people died in El Salvador, Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras due to the heavy rains, spawned in part by Hurricane Stan.

Nowhere was the devastation more widespread than Guatemala. Some 120,000 residents continue to live in shelters after flooding forced them to flee their homes.

In all, 200,000 people were considered "directly affected" by heavy rains, meaning that their homes were damaged, destroyed or rendered temporarily uninhabitable because of the threat of flooding from new rains, said Hugo Hernandez, director of the country's disaster response agency.

A huge mudslide buried 400 people in Panabaj, close to Santiago Atitlan, about 90 miles west of Guatemala City, President Oscar Berger said during a visit to the now-disappeared hamlet on the shores of Lake Atitlan.

A second major mudslide farther west in San Marcos province engulfed at least 80 people who had sought shelter from heavy rains in an evangelical meeting hall in the town of Tacana.

Authorities in those areas and elsewhere have begun abandoning efforts to recover bodies and are turning to international agencies to help feed, clothe and treat tens of thousands of residents who survived — but lost everything.

Berger and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu arrived here by helicopter Tuesday to the cheers and hugs of hundreds of people who swarmed Santiago Atitlan's town square, a stone courtyard fronting a 16th-century church.

The president hiked through the mudslide that buried Panabaj, a town he said would be abandoned forever. He said the government would provide land elsewhere to families looking to resettle and that trucks were bringing in tin roofing to build temporary shelters.

Menchu, a Maya herself, called on local communities to "preserve our culture and traditions," despite the loss of life and likely relocation.

"Lake Atitlan is a mirror for many Maya peoples," she said. "What we do here has to take into account the identity of all the Mayas."

Officials declared the mudflows covering Panabaj off-limits and forbade residents to return there for fear of disease. Only about one-fourth of the corpses were recovered.

"We don't want epidemics," said Santiago Atitlan Mayor Diego Esquina, adding "it is no longer possible" to recover more of the bodies.

Guatemala appealed to the United Nations for $21.5 million in aid, and several countries have already offered to provide assistance, including flood-stricken Mexico.

U.S. helicopters shuttled food and water to isolated villages, and additional aid headed to both Guatemala and El Salvador, where 71 people died in deadly flooding and landslides.

"There are so few of these kinds of problems that any one [country] can handle alone," U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday while en route to meetings in south Florida with security leaders from seven Central American countries. "It looks like it's a terrible natural disaster. It's heartbreaking."