They called the river "Old Mother," and it had given life to the town forever. But on Oct. 4, Maria Burrion recounted, the Madre Vieja River rose in a matter of minutes, overflowed its banks and came right through the walls of the one-bedroom tin shanty she shared with her five children and her elderly parents.

"It was something tremendous," she said, lifting tamales from a pot of boiling water in the courtyard of a boys' school, where her family now lives. "I looked out and saw the river coming toward us. The river surrounded the house."

The family huddled together inside as the brown waters rushed closer. They spent a first cold, dark night in the flooded house, eating canned beans and praying. The following evening, with water up to her knees, Burrion, 30, slung her year-old baby on her hip and scooped up her 6-year-old daughter in the other arm.

Then she, her parents and her three older children gripped each other tightly, forming a human chain, and waded through the water and muck to the nearest road, about half a mile away.

That's where municipal officials, out searching for survivors of the torrential rains and harrowing mudslides that had inundated the region in the wake of Hurricane Stan, found the family and drove them into the center of the town near Guatemala's Pacific coast.

There, the Rafael Arellano Cajas boys' school had been hurriedly converted into a shelter, its desks pushed aside and its aqua-painted classrooms turned into dormitories.

The family arrived wet and hungry, with only the clothes on their backs and the sandals on their feet, Burrion said. The school filled rapidly with others who had fled the floodwaters, 142 people in all, left homeless for the foreseeable future.

Smoke rose from the wood fire and burned Burrion's eyes last week as she stood over the bubbling pot of tamales in the schoolyard, where several women were making lunch for their families. She wiped away tears and continued cooking. She often found herself tearful since the river washed away her home and the little patch of rented land where her family grew corn and beans, she said.

"I don't have my own house," she said disconsolately. "I don't have anything."

Their story is tragic, but sadly typical for the estimated 200,000 people from across Guatemala who saw their homes and livelihoods vanish in an instant. They were among this country's most marginalized, the poorest of the poor. They had next to nothing before, but now they have nothing at all.

In some cases, entire communities were wiped out; the areas were declared mass graves. Authorities have confirmed 654 people dead but said more than 800 remained missing, buried under the rubble of their collapsed homes or in the mud.

In one sense, the Burrion family was lucky -- they survived.

When the waters rose, Burrion recounted, it had already been raining hard for several days and she suspected the river would flood, but she had nowhere to take her family.

Now, at least, they are dry and fed. Doctors have given her medicine for the fungus that grew on her feet during the long, watery trek, but they have not been able to diagnose or treat her daughter Maria, a rail-thin girl of 10 who has been vomiting for days and has dark circles under her eyes.

"My stomach hurts. My head hurts. I'm hot and I'm cold," Maria said.

Burrion's woes began long before Hurricane Stan destroyed her home. She grew up in a poverty that she has never been able to escape. She learned to read and write, but dropped out of primary school when her parents could no longer afford the fees. After that, she went to work washing clothes for $5 a week. She was married as a teenager and had her first child at 16.

Soon Burrion and her husband had more mouths than they could feed. Three years ago, when she was pregnant with her fifth child, she said, a woman from Antigua Guatemala, a large tourist city near the capital, came to the village and asked whether she would consider allowing a family from the United States to adopt the child.

She agreed, and gave away her baby boy. She did not accept any money for the child, she said, and said she never regretted her decision. Within a year, she was pregnant again.

Soon after that, Burrion said, her husband left for another town. She has not heard from him since.

At the Rafael Arellano Cajas school, Burrion said, everyone has been kind. She is surrounded by neighbors. Everyone works together, swapping stories about wading through the water and losing belongings.

At night, the children sleep on the cold tile floor of a classroom next to their mother, grandmother and grandfather. During the day, the children mop the floors so they have a clean place to sleep, and they help wash clothes by hand and hang them on lines strung throughout the school.

Burrion and the other women prepare meals for everyone living in the shelter, using beans, rice and flour donated by townspeople.

The shelter is not uncomfortable, the families said. There are showers and running water -- amenities they did not have at home. The elderly people sit in chairs in the courtyard. Sometimes the children watch television or drink Coca-Cola.

Burrion said she missed her herb garden and her neighborhood but did not expect ever to live there again. She would like to go back and see whether anything is left to salvage, but she does not have enough money to take the bus.

"I don't want to go back, but we don't know where to go," she said.

School officials have already announced that families would be allowed to stay for only two or three months. The government is trying to establish a more extensive temporary housing plan for flood victims.

Burrion said she felt sad, but not hopeless.

"I'm asking God to take care of my family," she said. "I feel that one day God has to give me something."

Maria Burrion, left, cooks at the converted school where she and 141 other Guatemalan evacuees found shelter.