Authorities abandoned efforts Tuesday to recover bodies from a deadly landslide and turned to international agencies to help feed, clothe and treat the tens of thousands of residents who lost everything in a week of deadly rains and floods.
President Oscar Berger and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu arrived in this hard-hit town by helicopter to the cheers of hundreds of people who swarmed Santiago Atitlan’s town square, a stone courtyard fronting a 17th century church.
“We came to share the pain of all the people who lost loved ones,” Berger said after hugging the town’s mayor. “We are very worried about Santiago Atitlan, (but) I have the impression that we have never been as united.”
Also Tuesday, Guatemalan officials raised the number of missing people to 577 from 384, while the death toll remained at 652. Another 133 people have died in El Salvador, Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras due to the heavy rains, partly spawned by Hurricane Stan.
Officials concerned about the possible outbreak of disease set up a perimeter around the site of a half-mile-wide and 15- to 20-foot-deep mudslide that buried the nearby community of Panabaj, about 85 miles west of Guatemala City.
Digging with bare hands for survivors
Santiago Atitlan Mayor Diego Esquina said corpses were decomposing rapidly and the hillside under which they lay was still highly unstable, making further rescue efforts too risky. Residents had been digging for possible survivors with their hands and whatever tools they could find.
Berger later declared the area a high-risk zone.
More than 107,000 Guatemalans were staying in shelters after their homes were damaged or destroyed. Some outlying communities remained blocked from outside help, Guatemalan Agriculture Minister Alvaro Aguilar said.
Aguilar said the government had stored up about two months’ worth of food for emergencies, but used an entire month’s supply just last week. He estimated that the country will need at least 22,000 tons of food over the next three months.
The government Monday night issued an urgent call to the United Nations, seeking $21.5 million in aid because its own emergency response funds would not be enough to cope with the crisis.
Several countries already have offered to provide assistance to Guatemala, including flood-stricken Mexico. Sweden has donated $5 million, and Spain, France and Taiwan have sent aid shipments.
Aid delivered from U.S.
The United States has delivered 5,000 hygiene kits, 5,000 blankets, 15,000 gallons of drinking water and 11,000 gallons of fuel to victims in Guatemala, officials said. U.S. helicopters shuttled food and water to isolated villages and a medical unit from the Arkansas National Guard also was preparing to go to the region.
The U.S. also was offering aid to El Salvador, Costa Rica and Mexico.
“There are so few of these kinds of problems that any one (country) can handle alone,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday while en route to meetings in Florida with security leaders from seven Central American countries. “It looks like it’s a terrible natural disaster. It’s heartbreaking.”
Nurse practitioner Barbara Fallon, doing relief work in Guatemala with a Missouri-based group called Pueblo to Pueblo, said storm victims were lacking all the basics.
“They need water, food and clothes, and a way to maintain hygiene,” she said.
UNICEF said Tuesday that more than a third of storm victims were children and that it was rushing emergency relief supplies to communities both in Central America and southern Mexico.
The organization said it was seeking close to $6 million in relief aid for Guatemala and El Salvador alone and has already diverted money from its development programs in the affected countries to help respond to the crisis.