'The police don't want to get their shoes wet'

The official death toll from massive floods ravaging Central America and Mexico surged to 763 late on Sunday as hundreds more were feared dead in Guatemala following last week’s mudslide that swallowed two small towns in the west of the country.

Hugo Hernandez, secretary of the Guatemalan National Disaster Relief Committee, said the number of dead in his country had risen from 519 to 652 as emergency workers made their way to about 100 remote communities previously cut off but the disaster.

In addition, 72 people were listed dead in El Salvador, 28 in Mexico and 11 in Nicaragua.

But the death toll was likely to double as about 1 400 people were believed to have been buried alive by a mudslide that hit the Guatemalan towns of Panajab and Tzanchaj, 180km west of the Guatemalan capital, before dawn on Wednesday.

Diego Mendoza, mayor of the nearby community of Santiago Atitlan, asked on Sunday that a river of mud that buried two Guatemalan towns be declared a mass grave for the thousands of people underneath.

“It is now a cemetery for 1 400 persons, we reckon,” Mayor Diego Mendoza told Agence France Presse.

Only 71 bodies, mostly children, have been recovered in the mudslide-hit area so far. The corpses were placed in makeshift wooden coffins and quickly interred.

“The size of the disaster is enormous. The losses are colossal,” Guatemalan Vice-President Eduardo Stein said during an interview with Sonora radio.

Stein said 130 000 persons were directly affected by Stan.
However, he said that 3,5-million people have been affected in areas where water and electricity have been cut.

In this usually touristic region of Guatemala, rescuers—armed only with shovels, picks and hoes to dig out the dead—began showing signs of fatigue, as there was little food and drinking water in the devastated Lake Atitlan area.

Rain fell across the country on Sunday, complicating the recovery efforts as helicopters were unable to fly over devastated areas, officials said.

Stan slammed ashore as a hurricane in the Mexican state of Veracruz early on Tuesday but began pounding northern Central America with rain on October 1, with Guatemala taking the hardest blow.

Guatemalan President Oscar Berger has made an impassioned plea for international assistance, estimating agricultural losses at $135-million.

But he did not hold out much hope for his compatriots.

“I believe we are in for more unpleasant surprises,” Berger said. “Many people remain missing. There have been many mudslides, and many communities remain cut off.”

Infrastructure and housing minister Eduardo Castillo said more than half of Guatemala’s 10 000km of rural roads had been damaged.

The United States, Japan, Mexico, Spain, Cuba, Canada and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration have pledged help.

Norway’s Ambassador Rolf Berg requested a detailed needs assessment to determine how best to help Guatemalans affected by the storm.

Cuba sent 100 doctors to administer vaccines in El Salvador, earning the thanks of President Antonio Saco.

Mexico has set aside $1,6-million for rescue and reconstruction efforts from the recent spike in oil revenues and the country’s emergency fund.

Normally, when there are natural disasters, the Mexican army trudges in to help.

But Chiapas residents complained bitterly of being forgotten this time around.

Hundreds walked from their village homes in search of potable water and food. Locals helped one another rappel down ravines and riverbeds where washed-out bridges used to be, trying to get into the nearest town.

“The police don’t want to get their shoes wet; they have left us to fend for ourselves,” said Amado Montes, a resident of a village cut off by the flooding and mudslides. - AFP

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