October 5, 2005

Rain, mudslides kill 117 in C. America and Mexico

By Noel Randewich

TAPACHULA, Mexico (Reuters) - Huge mudslides, flooding and torrential rains from Hurricane Stan have killed at least 117 people in Central American and southern Mexico, rescue workers said on Wednesday.

Relentless rain pounded mountain villages and urban shanty towns across the impoverished region, and hillsides collapsed under the weight of four days of downpours.

The death toll nearly doubled on Wednesday when rivers burst their banks in southern Mexico, and emergency teams found another 42 people buried under several feet of mud in remote Guatemalan towns.

Unconfirmed reports said hundreds may have died there.

"I was like a worm sliding around in the mud," said Alexander Flores, whose home on the edge of San Salvador was buried under six feet of dirt and rocks.

"I just heard two shouts from my mother, saying "Alex, Alex', maybe for me to help her or her trying to save me," he said. His mother and five children died, including a new-born baby, he said.

Fifty people have now been killed in both El Salvador and Guatemala, including the latest deaths, and another 17 total in Mexico, Nicaragua and Honduras, authorities said.

Many of the victims in the worst-hit areas lived in flimsy, wooden and iron huts that were swallowed by landslides.

Swollen rivers washed away a major bridge and ripped apart houses and buildings when they burst their banks at the city of Tapachula, in Mexico's Chiapas state.

"There is flooding, in some communities mudslides, there is no access by road, no telephone communication," said Jordan Jimenez of Mexico's civil protection agency in Chiapas. "There are people missing, some in shelters."


The tragedy brought back memories of Hurricane Mitch, which killed some 10,000 people in 1998 in Central America, mainly in Honduras and Nicaragua, with mudslides and flooding.

Tens of thousands of people fled their homes in Chiapas and the neighboring state of Veracruz after Stan, now reduced to a tropical depression, swept in from the Atlantic this week.

It came ashore on Tuesday near the city of Veracruz as a Category One hurricane with winds of nearly 80 mph (128 kph).

Lucas Lopez, an organic coffee salesman in Tapachula, said many homes and a railroad bridge had been washed away.

"The river is huge, people have lost their things. It rained all night and it's still raining," he said.

In Veracruz state, the storm blew the roofs off shacks, injuring four people, and forced hundreds to evacuate when rivers overflowed.

"I have lost everything," cried Sebastiana Jimenez, 48, looking into her flooded shack made out of plastic and wood scraps in the colonial port city of Veracruz.

"How (am) I going to buy my things back," she said, standing in filthy, brown water up to her knees.

Mexico's three main oil exporting ports, on the Gulf of Mexico, reopened after closing as Stan approached.

President Vicente Fox traveled to Chiapas on Wednesday to see the damage.