Fears rose on Tuesday that the death toll from devastating mudslides in Guatemala could reach 2 000, as rescuers suspended their search for hundreds of people buried for six days under solidifying mud near a volcano west of Guatemala City.
More than 650 are confirmed dead, but 1 400 still are listed as missing.
”This is a temporary suspension, because you can’t work in this terrain,” said firefighters’ spokesperson Mario Cruz in Panabaj. ”We are waiting for the government’s decision to resume work or declare it a cemetery,” which would end the search.
Guatemalan and Spanish firefighters had little hope of finding survivors as they searched with sniffer dogs after a mudslide on the San Lucas volcano plowed into the towns of Panabaj and Tzanchaj, in a lake region 180km west of Guatemala City.
”If it had been an earthquake, you could hope to find survivors, but here in the mud, I don’t think so,” said a Spanish firefighter. ”It could take a month for it to dry up.”
President Oscar Berger on Monday declared three days of mourning for the 652 people confirmed dead in Guatemala since Tropical Storm Stan unleashed unrelenting rains a week ago that triggered floods and avalanches of mud.
Up to 1 400 people are missing in the communities.
Cruz said that only 77 bodies have been recovered so far in Panabaj, including just one in the past four days.
The local mayor has asked the central government to declare the devastated area a mass grave.
Panabaj was declared an ”area of high [health] risk” by the Guatemalan Red Cross, meaning the town is off limits to everybody, including its inhabitants, and that its surroundings are to be evacuated, a spokesperson said.
Hundreds of villagers in the Mayan region had flocked to the mudslide since Wednesday to try to dig out their friends, relatives and neighbours.
Geronimo Mendoza, a farmer wearing a straw hat, had carried a shovel on his shoulder as he joined the search effort.
”I had a lot of friends in these homes,” said Mendoza (63). ”I want to find their remains to give then a dignified burial.”
West of Panabaj and Tzanchaj, officials estimate that hundreds have also disappeared or died.
Several towns were ”destroyed” and another 14 were flooded in the south-west, near the Pacific coast, said Santo Domingo mayor Mario Perez.
Stan slammed the Mexican state of Veracruz as a hurricane a week ago before being downgraded to a tropical storm.
At least 72 people were killed in El Salvador, 28 in Mexico and 11 in Nicaragua.
President Berger has urged the international community to help his nation of 11,2-million people. Several countries, including Japan, Mexico, Spain, France, Cuba and Canada, have pledged help for Guatemala.
Vice-President Eduardo Stein said the country needs $21,5-million in emergency funds to provide food, blankets and medicine to an estimated 3,5-million people affected by the storm — the damage is estimated at $800-million.
The United Nations said it is launching a $22-million flash appeal to assist victims in Guatemala.
The US military sent a humanitarian assistance team of 58 over the weekend and eight helicopters to deliver supplies, while US General Bantz Craddock, commander of the Miami-based US Southern Command, arrived in Guatemala on Monday to help coordinate relief efforts.
In south-eastern Mexico, hundreds of farming communities face possible food shortages for months and the loss of entire crops.
Mexican authorities have launched a vaccination drive amid an outbreak of dengue fever in the storm zone.
Mexican President Vicente Fox estimated that rebuilding broken bridges, homes and other infrastructure in his country would cost $1,8-billion.
”It is urgent that funds flow rapidly” to the affected areas, Fox said.
The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30, has been one of the deadliest and most active on record. Stan was the 10th Atlantic hurricane this year. — AFP