Central America Mourns Victims of Natural Disasters

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala, October 11, 2005 (ENS) - Landslides and floods in the aftermath of Hurricane Stan, combined with an earthquake off the coast of El Salvador as well as a volcanic eruption, have killed at least 800 people throughout Central America and Mexico and hundreds more are missing and feared dead.

The heavy rains that have inundated 30,000 square miles of Guatemala are expected to continue at least through today.

In an address to the nation today, Guatemalan President Oscar Berger called the situation "a true catastrophe."


Guatemalan President Oscar Berger pledged to rebuild his stricken country. (Photo courtesy Government of Guatemala)
"Since six days ago," said President Berger, "I have responded personally and in company of my government team to the different communities that have suffered this dramatic onslaught of nature, and I share the deep pain of the death of hundreds of men, women and Guatemalan children."

Expressing his condolences to the families of victims on behalf of the nation, the President declared three days of mourning for those who lost their lives in the storm and resulting landslides. He pledged to continue the search for survivors, to rush critically needed supplies to people displaced by the storm, and to move towards rebuilding the country as quickly as possible.

Devastation to life and property caused by Hurricane Stan in Guatemala, El Salvador and Southern Mexico has surpassed that caused by Hurricane Mitch in October 1998. More than 500,000 people have been affected.

Landslides and flooding have rendered thousands of villages inaccessible and hampered delivery of emergency supplies to those affected.

In Guatemala, the national disaster office said 736 people are reported dead, and 69 were reported killed in El Salvador.

At least 1,400 others are missing and presumed dead in the Guatemalan village of Panabaj, which was buried in a mudslide triggered by Stan's torrential rains.

On Friday rescue crews pulled 70 bodies from the muddy wreckage of Panabaj, and local officials said many more could lie beneath the landslide. But rescue crews gave up on Monday, saying the situation was too dangerous, and the precise death toll will never be known.

The United Nations said Guatemala has suffered more than 900 landslides, with entire villages swept away.

The Guatemala Red Cross is using helicopters to distribute relief goods in the most isolated areas such as Coatepeque.

“The needs in the affected communities are great. The population that was hardest-hit by these floods were already living in a precarious situation. The International Federation support to the Red Cross operations is initially focusing on providing emergency relief items, including household items,” says Santiago Gil, head of the Americas Department of the International Federation of Red Cross.

Hundreds of Red Cross volunteers from the affected countries have been working around the clock participating in search and rescue, evacuating people and distributing humanitarian relief assistance.

“The emergency goods we are flying in complement the work being done on the ground by Red Cross,” Gil said.

Precise information is scarce as communication has been widely disrupted across the region. Phone lines are down, cutting off communications, and many roads and bridges are damaged or collapsed in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and parts of southern Mexico.


In El Salvador, survivors escape their flooded town by boat. (Photo by Hector Espinal courtesy UNICEF)
In Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Mexico, some 70 health centers located in the footprint of Hurricane Stan suffered damages and many had to be closed given the existing conditions.

Since Hurricane Stan first hit on October 4, the situation has worsened, particularly in El Salvador and Guatemala, but, with remote areas cut off, the overall extent of the disaster remains unclear.

An earthquake of 5.7 magnitude offshore of El Salvador on Friday was centered 60 kilometers (35 miles) south-southwest of the capital city San Salvador. The government has requested outside help. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs mobilized the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination team on Friday.

El Salvadorean officials have confirmed the deaths of 74 people. Some 65,000 others have been evacuated to shelters due to the combined effects of widespread flooding and the eruption October 1 of the country's largest volcano.

The Santa Ana or Llimatepec Volcano, located 66 kilometers (44 miles) west of the capital, erupted after standing dormant for more than a century. The eruption of hot rocks and steam plumes resulted in two deaths, seven injuries, and the evacuation of some 7,000 residents living within a four kilometer radius of the volcano, which threatens further eruptions.

The Pan American Health Organization is working with the government of El Salvador to set up an emergency monitoring center and activate surveillance systems against disease. More than 62,000 people have had to seek aid in some of the 633 temporary shelters created throughout the country, where an estimated 80 percent of the road network was affected.

On October 4, U.S. Chargé d'Affaires to El Salvador Michael Butler issued a disaster declaration due to the magnitude of damage caused by the flooding and volcanic eruption.

USAID is providing $100,000 to Catholic Relief Services to distribute emergency relief items, including mattresses and hygiene kits, to affected families. The aid is being channeled through the international relief and development agency Catholic Relief Services, based in Baltimore.

On Friday, the International Federation of Red Cross launched an appeal for 1,568,000 Swiss francs to provide assistance for up to 10,000 people in Guatemala over the next six months.

Another appeal seeking about a third of that amount to assist 21,000 people in El Salvador was launched on October 5. A flight with humanitarian assistance was sent to El Salvador on Friday carrying blankets, hygiene kits and kitchen sets, the same relief supplies that are being distributed in Guatemala.

The Pan American Health Organization is working to assist the countries affected by the flooding and landslides. In Mexico, the state of Chiapas was the most affected by the storm. Although there was serious damage and loss of infrastructure, the loss of lives was limited due to evacuations prior to the event. Some 285,000 persons in Chiapas and Veracruz took refuge in shelters, and 22 health centers were severely damaged.

Tens of thousands of people in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Mexico lost everything they had after the major landslides. More than 1,400 homes were destroyed and 5,300 homes damaged in Guatemala, where 577 persons are still missing and 107,000 people are in shelters.


The U.S. Southern Command is flying helicopters loaded with relief supplies into remote areas of Guatemala. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army)
In a statement Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala said the U.S. Army's Southern Command will provide search-and-rescue assistance through helicopter missions in Guatemala. Eight U.S. helicopters are at work transporting critically needed relief and emergency personnel to remote areas of the country.

To date, USAID has delivered more than $200,000 in relief supplies to Guatemala, including funding for the helicopter transport of emergency relief supplies and for the purchase of food, water and other supplies. Fuel has been purchased for the Guatemalan air bridge to deliver emergency supplies. USAID has flown in 5,000 blankets, plastic tarpaulins to provide temporary shelter for 1,000 families, and 5,000 personal hygiene kits containing blankets, soap and other toiletries.

The Southern Command also will help in reconstruction efforts in Guatemala, which might include such assistance as transporting medical equipment and equipment for rebuilding bridges, schools and energy facilities donated by the United States.