At least 500 people have died in Guatemala, and hundreds more remained missing and feared dead, in a wave of mudslides and heavy rains over the past week that have devastated parts of the country in the wake of Hurricane Stan and left entire villages buried in mud, according to reports from officials and rescue workers in the region.
There were also reports that between 1,200 and 1,400 people might have been killed in a single massive mudslide early Wednesday in the Guatemalan village of Panabaj. A fire brigade official in the village told the Reuters news agency Friday that no survivors were left after torrential rains dropped a suffocating wall of mud onto the hillside community of 250 houses.
Whatever its ultimate death toll, the destruction of Panabaj, perched on the slopes below volcanic Lake Atitlan, appeared to be the worst single episode in a week of devastating weather that has punished Central America with rain, floods, landslides and an earthquake.
The National Agency for Disaster Control in Guatemala City reported Saturday that 508 people were confirmed dead nationwide and at least 337 were missing, according to La Hora newspaper in the capital. The center said that more than 100,000 people in 421 communities had been affected by the calamity, and that 89,000 had been taken to shelters. They also said 118 settlements remained unreachable.
The new reports of casualties dramatically increased the regional death toll from problems related to the hurricane, which has flooded large areas of land and dumped mud on dozens of villages in Central America and Mexico. By Friday, 241 people were reported to have died in several days of heavy weather, including a 5.5 magnitude earthquake that struck just off the coast of El Salvador Friday.
The death toll from landslides and flooding in El Salvador was at least 67; the toll was 14 in Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua, but the details were still sketchy today. In Mexico, heavy rains battered the country's Gulf Coast after Hurricane Stan came ashore there Tuesday and moved across several southern states, causing at least 15 storm-related fatalities.
Officials in the Guatemalan village of Panabaj, on the slopes of Toliman Volcano in the picturesque Santiago Atitlan region, told the Guatemalan newspaper Century 21 that the village had "disappeared" before dawn Wednesday, possibly leaving up to 1,200 dead, when tons of mud engulfed its 250 houses. The region of lakes and mountain vistas attracts many foreign tourists, but it is also home to hundreds of impoverished Mayan villages.
Mayor Diego Esquina Mendoza told the newspaper Friday that 117 bodies had been recovered, 700 people had been rescued and more than 1,000 were still missing.
Hundreds of firefighters, soldiers, survivors and other rescue workers were described as digging through thick slabs of mud with hoes, machetes and pick axes to reach victims buried in their houses, but most rescuers did not reach the scene until 48 hours after the slide.
A teacher in the village, Manuel Gonzalez, told Reuters, "there are no children left, there are no people left." The dead were quickly buried in mass graves and survivors were taken to shelters, officials said.
Survivors said they were awakened by a roaring sound and thought at first the nearby volcano was erupting, the Associated Press reported. Instead, they said, a massive wall of mud, rocks and trees descended from the slopes above and buried the community within minutes.
In the nearby lakeside tourist town of Santiago Atitlan, piles of homemade coffins were brought to cemeteries to await burial, while villagers dug for more bodies with hand tools, according to the Associated Press. Municipal officials said entire families had disappeared. The front page of La Hora, a national newspaper, Saturday showed a crowd hoisting crude wooden coffins on poles.
Many other areas of the country were affected by the heavy rains that have pummeled the region all week. Guatemala's minister of communications, Eduardo Castillo, said 400 landslides had occurred, causing damage to 11 bridges and 25 per cent of the country's paved roadways.
Officials said 30 percent of agricultural land had been affected. The country is a major producer of coffee, and its economy is chiefly agricultural. The ministry of agriculture reported that sugar, cocoa, corn, coffee, beans, rice and vegetable crops had been damaged or destroyed in half a dozen provinces.
Officials said the devastation was much worse than Guatemala had experienced in 1998 during Hurricane Mitch, which left 268 people dead across the country and 110,000 homeless. The total death toll from Mitch in other parts of Central America was much higher, however, reaching more than 10,000.