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Guatemala halts rescue, shifts to reconstruction

Guatemala turned to the daunting task of reconstruction Wednesday after a week of rains left more than 1,000 dead or missing and destroyed or damaged 200,000 homes.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Guatemalan authorities turned to reconstruction Wednesday — including relocating entire villages — after a week of rains left more than 1,000 dead or missing and destroyed or damaged 200,000 homes.

But until the communities can be rebuilt, thousands of residents have nowhere to go. More than 650 communities were affected by the heavy rains, which were spurred partly by Hurricane Stan. Stan came ashore on Mexico’s Gulf Coast on Oct. 4, bringing flooding before weakening.

Officials put the death toll at 654, with 577 missing and feared dead. More than 120,000 Guatemalans remained in schools, churches and other buildings that were converted hastily into shelters — and it could be months before they have a place to call home again.

“For now, we have provisional shelters,” where residents are expected to stay for about 20 days, said Hugo Hernandez, an official from the country’s national disaster response agency.

The next step is to clean up villages, restore basic services and construct longer-term shelters, Hernandez said. Those shelters will house “the people who lost everything,” he said.

Maintaining maximum alert
Although the rains have stopped, Hernandez’s agency and civil protection officials, along with the Red Cross and firefighting brigades, remained on maximum alert.

“There are no longer any rescues taking place, or searches ... (but) we can’t call the emergency over because there are still a lot of people who haven’t received help,” said municipal fire department spokesman Ricardo Lemus.

Most rescue efforts had been focused on the community of Panabaj, on the outskirts of Santiago Atitlan, 85 miles west of Guatemala City. A massive mudslide buried Panabaj, killing an estimated 400 people.

Officials called off the search on Tuesday citing the riskiness of digging earth destabilized and saturated with water, and the threat of disease from decomposing corpses.

They also suspended rescue efforts in Tacana, to the west in San Marcos province, where a river of mud buried an evangelical meeting hall that was serving as a temporary shelter from the flood for about 80 people. More than 40 people were killed in that mudslide.

During a visit to Panabaj on Tuesday, President Oscar Berger said the town would be abandoned forever and declared a “symbol of national reconstruction.”

He also said the government would provide land elsewhere to families looking to resettle.

The magnitude of the crisis prompted Berger to issue a call along with the United Nations for international aid.

Global response
Numerous nations have responded. The United States sent eight military helicopters and dozens of men to distribute food aid, help rescue victims and survivors, and to evacuate those who were wounded or in danger.

Cuba has sent nearly 600 doctors to remote communities to help prevent epidemics and aid shelter residents. France, Spain, and Venezuela have sent firefighters and disaster experts.

All together, foreign countries have donated about $1.7 billion.

More than 130 people also died in El Salvador, Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras due to the heavy rains.

Officials from El Salvador, where 71 people died, were to present a separate plea for aid Wednesday at the Iberoamerican summit in Spain.

Thousands of Salvadoran students returned to school Wednesday after authorities downgraded the country’s state of alert from red to yellow, under which residents were asked to be prepared to evacuate again if necessary.