Published January 13, 2015
Rescue workers in Guatemala pulled dozens of bodies from a massive mudslide and from a swollen river Thursday, raising to at least 236 the number of people killed from five days of pounding rains in Central America and Mexico.
Officials expected the death to toll to climb as they searched for more than 150 others who were missing following the landslide in Solola, a town close to Lake Atitlan (search), 60 miles west of the capital, Guatemala City (search).
Along the country's Pacific coast, the Nahualate River (search) broke from its banks, creating a new outlet to the sea and killing at least 20 people from a small, seaside village, navy officials said.
There was joy amid the tragedy. Claudio Manchinel, from Iztapa (search) in coastal, southern Guatemala, was forced to walk for hours through rain and mud with his pregnant wife, Leticia. Upon reaching a highway, the couple stopped an ambulance, which took them to a naval base, where their son Claudio was born Wednesday.
Manchinel said the flooding reminded him of Hurricane Mitch, which killed at least 9,000 people throughout Central America in 1998.
The recovery of bodies pushed the number killed in the region to 236, including 14 victims earlier this week in Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica, and 13 victims who died in three southern Mexican states.
The current death toll in Guatemala is 144, with the discovery of five new victims. At least 65 died in El Salvador.
For the first time since the weekend, the weather cleared Thursday and allowed Guatemala President Oscar Berger to fly over devastated areas and evaluate damage.
He asked Congress to declare a state of emergency as rescue workers in Solola reported that two other villages had been buried by landslides, including Las Giraldas, 55 miles west of Guatemala City. There, more than a dozen people were working to dig out houses buried when a second hillside collapsed.
In Quetzaltenango (search), Guatemala's second-most important city about 125 miles west of the capital, floodwaters rose 61/2 feet high, destroying hundreds of homes, businesses and public buildings, firefighters said.
More than 24,000 people from 270 communities took refuge in shelters throughout Guatemala, but they were suffering from the cold and a lack of food and water, according to radio reports. Quetzaltenango residents reported similar conditions.
"It was complicated arriving with new shipments of food" because of the bad weather, said Agriculture Minister Alvaro Aguilar. "Today, we are making an effort" to reach the areas by air.
Guatemalan rescue workers also were trying to restore access to 300 roads blocked by fallen trees, flooding and landslides.
In El Salvador, where the heavy rains have left 65 dead, rescuers also stepped up aid flights and flyovers as the sun emerged from behind the clouds.
Authorities also were on alert for new landslides and flooded rivers similar to those that already had closed or destroyed dozens of highways and bridges. Officials said nearly 54,000 people had been evacuated to 370 shelters throughout the country, while nearly 80 percent of the country's roadways had been affected by the rains.
"The rain stopped, rays of sun have begun to warm the country, but the danger continues," said Salvadoran Red Cross spokesman Carlos Lopez Mendoza. "The ground is saturated and we could have more tragedies."
The Mexican Air Force on Thursday was preparing to deliver 220 tons of food and 33 tons of emergency supplies to El Salvador (search).
In addition, Mexican President Vicente Fox (search) said two planes loaded with 40 tons of aid would fly out Thursday to southern areas of Mexico devastated by the rains.
The United States said it was donating $100,000 in household items to Mexico and would also offer humanitarian aid to the Central American countries. Mexican troops recently returned from several weeks of helping U.S. officials clean up after Hurricane Katrina.
"To be united, to be friendly, pays and pays well," Fox said.
On Wednesday, Fox visited the city of Tapachula in the southern state of Chiapas, where flood waters destroyed 50 bridges, swept away homes, engulfed highways, and cut off electricity and telephone service. Officials reported eight deaths throughout the state and 25,000 people were living in 103 shelters. Residents in the area sent repeated pleas for aid via news reporters.
The rain and clouds "have not allowed us to go in with airplanes and helicopters and as a result have limited our capacity to act," Fox said Thursday. Likewise, he said rough seas had prevented two large ships of aid from reaching affected areas.