Torrents of mud and boulders choked the streets of Verapaz on Sunday, part of massive wave of rain-fueled flooding that authorities said killed 91 people throughout El Salvador and left about five dozen missing.
Almost 7,000 people saw their homes damaged, destroyed or cut off by floods and mudslides across this Central American nation.
Rescue workers dug frantically for victims, but the mud flows were so high they nearly swallowed vehicles completely. Many streets were blocked with boulders.
"What happened in Verapaz was something terrible," said Interior Minister Humberto Centeno, who flew over the city Sunday to survey the damage. "It is a real tragedy there."
At least 23 people were killed in San Vicente province, where Verapaz is located, and at least 60 people were unaccounted for in the city located about 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of the capital, San Salvador.
Power knocked out
Provincial Gov. Manuel Castellanos said workers were struggling to clear roadways and power and water service had been knocked out.
At least 300 houses in Verapaz were flooded after a river overflowed its bank, Red Cross spokesman Carlos Lopez Mendoza said.
The rains unleashed massive rock slides from the Chichontepec volcano that buried several other houses, Verapaz Mayor Antonio Cerritos told Radio Nacional.
In San Salvador, authorities reported 61 dead. Lopez Mendoza said the toll included a family of four — two adults and two children — who were killed when a mudslide buried their home Sunday morning.
The remaining victims were buried by slides or carried away by raging rivers in other parts of the country, Vice Interior Minister Ernesto Zelayandia told The Associated Press.
El Salvador was slammed by three days of heavy rains from a Pacific coast low-pressure system indirectly related to Hurricane Ida, which brushed the Mexican resort of Cancun Sunday and steamed into the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 2 hurricane.
Helicopters used in rescues
The mountains in El Salvador quickly funneled rain down into populated valleys. Poverty and precarious construction appeared to play a role in the destruction, as homes clinging to steep hillsides quickly fell prey to mudslides.
Authorities had to use helicopters to reach some of the most severely affected townships, Centeno said.
Centeno said it has been impossible to reach many of the affected areas because of damage to roads.
Hurricane Ida's presence in the western Caribbean may have played a role in drawing a Pacific low-pressure system toward El Salvador, causing the rains, said Dave Roberts, a Navy hurricane specialist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
He added, however, that "if there were deaths associated with this rainfall amount in El Salvador, I would not link it to Ida."