SAN CRISTOBAL VERAPAZ, Guatemala (Reuters) – Rescue workers on Saturday clambered over treacherous roads buried in mud and rubble to reach a remote mountain village in Guatemala swamped by a devastating storm that has killed and led to the disappearance of dozens of people across Central America and southern Mexico.
Storm Eta’s torrential downpours toppled trees, engorged swift-moving rivers, and ripped down parts of a mountainside above the village of Queja in the central Guatemalan region of Alta Verapaz, burying dozens of people in their homes.
The heavy rains are still triggering mudslides in Queja.
Gloria Cac, a member of the Poqomchiʼ people and a resident of Queja, said 22 family members went missing after the mountain collapsed onto the village.
“All her family is gone, she’s the only survivor. Her dad, mom, siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents, they’re all gone. Twenty-two family members and it’s just her alive,” a visibly distraught Cac, carrying a small child in her arms, said through an interpreter in a recorded video.
Francisco Muz, a retired general who was helping in the rescue efforts, said the landslides have not stopped because of the continuous rains in the mountains.
“At ground zero there is a terrible reality … this national tragedy is centered in San Cristobal Verapaz, in Queja village,” Muz said.
The devastating weather front spread destruction from Panama to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Mexico, has continued to push the death toll higher in those countries. It now stands above 65.
Panama’s government increased its tally after floods and landslides killed 17 people there. Two miners were reported killed in Nicaragua, while in southern Costa Rica a landslide killed a Costa Rican woman and an American man in a house. A man was killed in El Salvador and Honduras has reported 25 dead and two missing.
In the Mexican state of Chiapas, flooding has killed 19 people, many swept up by rivers whose banks burst, state authorities said. North of Chiapas in Tabasco state, the deluges killed two more people, the federal government said.
The devastation harked back to Hurricane Mitch, which killed some 10,000 people in Central America in 1998.
COULD BE MONTHS BEFORE ALL HOMES ARE UNEARTHED
A steady drizzle fell as firefighters in San Cristobal Verapaz prepared to make the journey on foot to Queja, which they said could take a full day.
“An attempt was already made to get through but it’s very difficult and we’re really sad we couldn’t get through, but it’s very dangerous,” said Juan Alberto Leal, an official with the local fire service. “The problem is that there are several mudslides throughout the route.”
Ordinarily, the 22-km (13.7 mile) trip between San Cristobal Verapaz and Queja takes an hour by car.
Some 55 soldiers, 25 firefighters and 15 police officers have managed to reach the site of the disaster and were using shovels and picks to search for survivors and retrieve bodies.
So far three bodies have been recovered.
“The mud is very thick, it’s hard to know really just how thick, and we’re (digging) from the surface until we find the first homes and there could be bodies there,” Army spokesman Colonel Ruben Tellez said.
“It could take months to unearth” all the homes, he added.
President Alejandro Giammattei on Friday hinted up to 150 people could have been buried in the Queja landslide.
Guatemalan disaster relief agency Conred said 103 people were still missing and 21 confirmed dead in the country.
ETA HEADS TO CUBA
It was not the first time disaster struck this corner of Alta Verapaz. The area around Queja appeared to be the site of a huge landslide on a road pass a decade ago, which killed dozens, Tellez said.
Taiwan donated $200,000 and the United States $120,000 for the purchase of food and drinking water, Giammattei said.
“The number of people in the shelters has continued to grow and we haven’t finished rescuing people,” the president added.
One of the fiercest storms to hit Central America in years, Eta struck Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane on Tuesday with winds of 150 miles per hour (241 kph).
Dumping relentless rains, it weakened to a tropical depression as it moved inland into Honduras and Guatemala before re-entering the Caribbean sea and advancing towards Cuba.
Hundreds of thousands of Cubans began evacuating their homes on Saturday as Eta neared the Caribbean island’s southern coast, threatening torrential rain and flooding.
(Additional reporting by Enrique Garcia in Guatemala City, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Elida Moreno in Panama City, Alvaro Murillo in San Jose and Nelson Renteria in San Salvador; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Dave Graham, Paul Simao and Jonathan Oatis)