June 1, 2010 6:46 pm

Storm Agatha kills more than 150 in Guatemala

At least 144 people have died and more than 100,000 have lost their homes or have been evacuated after a tropical storm ripped through Guatemala and other Central American countries over the weekend.

Agatha, the first tropical storm of the 2010 season, hit land near the border of Guatemala and Mexico on Saturday, causing devastating landslides and destruction of infrastructure in the days that followed.

The Red Cross’ Pan-American disaster response unit in Panama told the FT on Tuesday that 118 people have been confirmed dead in Guatemala as a result of the storm, with a further 17 victims in Honduras and nine in El Salvador.

But official figures from Guatemala suggest that the toll could be considerably higher. David de León of the country’s National Co-ordination unit of Disaster Control (Conred) said that, as of Tuesday morning, 152 people had died and more than 124,000 had either lost their homes or been evacuated to emergency shelters.

As relief efforts continued on Tuesday, the European Union said that it would disburse €3m of humanitarian aid to help Central American governments respond to the effects of the storm. “When disaster strikes, action must be taken rapidly,” said Kristalina Georgieva, the European commissioner for humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, Guatemala’s Congress was preparing to hold an extraordinary session to ratify a presidential decision to declare a state of “national calamity”. Roberto Alejos, president of the congress, told local media that ratification would free up $85m from a disaster fund, enabling the government to channel the money towards ongoing relief efforts.

But Mr de León of Guatemala’s Conred said that rescue attempts were being hampered by widespread destruction of basic infrastructure. Record rainfall – 400mm in less than 24 hours – had destroyed 106 bridges, leaving 40 per cent of the country’s 13m population isolated.

“There are still many places that we have not been able to get to,” he told the FT on Tuesday morning.

In Gualán, in the Guatemalan province of Zacapa, winds and rain tore off rooftops and left streets more than a metre-deep in water.

In Santa Apolonia, in the province of Chimaltenango, survivors buried 11 members of a family that was crushed by a landslide of mud and rocks. “We are burying our dead,” Marco Tulio Núñez, the mayor, told the local newspaper Prensa Libre. “We don’t have the support of the government. We still haven’t received help from anyone.”

The country’s meteorological service said on Tuesday that the worst of Agatha was over, and that the coming days would bring rainfall more in line with historical averages. However, it warned that it would still be some time until land movements from the intense precipitation over the last few days stabilised.

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