The City & My Life|AFP – Rescue workers in El Salvador on Tuesday tried to reach dozens of towns cut off by torrents of mud and debris unleashed by devastating late-season storms that killed at least 144 people.
The total number of dead rose to 144, civil protection authorities said after landslides and overflowing rivers swept away homes, while a raging torrent ripped through part of the town of Verapaz, where bodies — covered in mud-caked sheets — were stored in a local chapel, waiting to be identified.
Rescue efforts focused on the eastern San Vicente department, where 72 people were still missing after three days of driving rain, 60 of them in Verapaz alone, officials said late Monday.
“The problem here in finding bodies is removing all these rocks and trees,” Carlos Arce, 27, told AFP in what remained of his town of 6,800 after the storm.
“The floods took away people, houses and destroyed the crops,” said Javier Martinez, a local farmer.
The number of people seeking emergency shelter dropped slightly to 12,930, a civil protection official said, while 1,800 homes were damaged or destroyed and 18 bridges and many roads were washed away by the floods.
The devastation was initially blamed on Hurricane Ida, which did not hit the country of some seven million people directly but brought heavy rain that affected the entire region.
Meterologists on Tuesday said however that Ida was not solely to blame. Ida not directly behind deadly Salvador floods: experts
As Ida was slamming Nicaragua and Honduras “there was another system coming from the eastern Pacific” spreading “very heavy rains over the western El Salvador,” said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and spokesman with the Miami-based National Hurricane Center.
“Hurricane Ida was not directly responsible for the grave situation in El Salvador,” Feltgen said.
In El Salvador, meteorologist Walter Vanegas also blamed the Pacific system, but did not fully absolve Ida.
“The rain… was caused by a low pressure system that was semi-parked southwest of El Salvador over the Pacific,” said Vanegas.
“But the remnants of clouds left by Hurricane Ida in the region influenced the situation by adding humidity,” Vanegas said.
President Mauricio Funes visited Verapaz, where he vowed that “this time, the government will not leave the people alone.”
He has requested the national assembly reallocate 150 million dollars from an international loan of 300 million designed for anti-crisis measures.
The National Assembly has declared a “public catastrophe and national disaster” and decreed three days of national mourning for the flood victims.
“There is no doubt that this is a town that has been severely hit by a natural disaster, but it also shows the lack of preventive measures and risk mitigation that could have been carried out years ago,” said Funes.
“We must overcome the tragedy … I know that those lives lost simply cannot be replaced.”
Help for the flood victims was coming from across the Americas: the United States has donated 100,000 dollars in aid, Brazil 80,000 dollars, and Guatemala has sent rescue workers to help the recovery effort.
The UN World Food Program warned that over the next few days around 10,000 people in El Salvador will need emergency food assistance.
Teams would shortly begin the challenging work in this hilly and mountainous land of evaluating the flood damage, according to Interior Minister Humberto Centeno.
Ida, now weakened to a tropical depression, made landfall in Alabama early Tuesday, lashing the southeastern United States from Louisiana to Florida with winds and rain.
Torrential rains have also hit neighboring Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala.
No victims or major damage have been reported either in Honduras or Mexico, but about 100 homes have been damaged by flooding in Guatemala, prompting the evacuation of at least 200 people there.
Ida also struck neighboring Nicaragua last week, destroying around 930 homes and leaving some 13,000 people homeless.