By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 10, 2005
ESCUINTLA, Guatemala, Oct. 9 -- The rain stopped falling in this coastal Guatemalan state Sunday and the army began evacuating mostly women and children stranded without food or water in remote towns. Water stood more than four feet high in some places, rivers were swollen with muddy water and the rains that battered this country for days ruined fields of sugar cane.
"It's totally isolated," said Marisa Marroquin, 47, who was airlifted by helicopter out of her home in Boton Blanco, a coastal village with about 400 residents. "It was sad to leave my house. Everything is lost."
Only two people have been found dead in Escuintla, but another 340 were missing and 3,400 more have been evacuated from their homes, according to figures released by the governor's office. More than 51,000 homes in the state have been damaged by floodwaters.
Across Guatemala, 519 bodies have been recovered and reburied since Hurricane Stan made landfall last week on the Gulf of Mexico coast, news services reported. More than 120 people were dead and hundreds of others were missing elsewhere in Central America and in southern Mexico.
In Escuintla, south of Guatemala City, streams of muddy water flowed freely on the sides of the main highway and turned the dirt floors of low-sitting metal homes into mush.
Marroquin, her two daughters, five grandchildren and about 40 other evacuees lay on sponge beds in an army barracks that had been converted to a shelter. One woman nursed her baby. Children rolled around restlessly as they waited for soldiers to serve dinner. Some had fevers and others stomach pains.
"We need medicine. We are sick," Marroquin said.
Her neighbor, Amparo Somoza, 39, said: "I had to leave. The roads were flooded. I hurt my knees when I fell in the mud and needed antibiotics."
Farther north in Santiago Amatitlan, in the state of Solola, Mayan villagers were ordered to stop trying to uncover the bodies of loved ones buried in a river of mud that careered down a volcano here on Friday.
Guatemalan officials said they would abandon communities buried by landslides and declare them mass graveyards, according to the Associated Press. Many of the missing apparently will simply be declared dead, and the ground they rest in declared hallowed.
The government on Saturday began trying to reach remote villages in Escuintla and other areas affected by flooding, but homes and roads were covered with water, mud and downed trees, making many towns impossible to reach.
"The rivers are still dropping water here," said army Maj. Luis Barahona, who is helping to organize rescue efforts in Escuintla. "Soldiers have been walking to villages and carrying food on their backs. Some people don't want to leave their homes, because they know when they return there will be nothing left."
Many residents also expressed concern that even if their homes survived, their livelihoods would not. Sugar cane fields were flooded and shrimp boats anchored.
It wasn't until Sunday that government officials were able to begin running helicopter rescues. Mostly women and children left their homes, as their husbands and brothers remained behind to guard the property and wait for floodwaters to recede.
Many residents on Guatemala's coast remember floods in the late 1960s and Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Waters rose then, but passed more quickly, evacuees said.
On Sunday, radio stations throughout the country held telethons to raise money for those devastated by flooding.
"Only God knows what you'll find when you go home," said one man who called in to a radio station in Escuintla to encourage donations.