Dozens dead as Tropical Storm Eta causes mudslides in Central America

Dozens were dead and many more missing in Guatemala after one of the most brutal storms to lash the region in years triggered mudslides that swallowed up houses and turned roads into rivers.

“We still haven’t finished rescuing people. We have people trapped in villages,” President Alejandro Giammattei told reporters at the weekend. He acknowledged that the death toll would rise from the official tally of 27. Officials say more than 100 are missing.

Eta slammed into Nicaragua last Tuesday as a category four storm and weakened on its path through Honduras, but the torrential rains it unleashed left a trail of devastation and heavy rains from Panama to southeastern Mexico.

It has now moved back into the Atlantic and strengthened into a tropical cyclone as it closed in on Cuba. It is expected to reach the Florida Keys by Monday, the US National Hurricane Center said.

In Central America, thousands across an impoverished region already facing worsening economic hardship because of Covid-19 lost their homes and crops — officials estimated at least 13,000 farming families had lost coffee, banana, cardamom and other plantations in Guatemala alone.

Analysts said the storm havoc could fuel migrant flows to the US — a key regional issue in relations with president-elect Joe Biden.

Photographs of the mountains of the Alto Verapaz area showed a brown void in the lush vegetation, gouged by a giant mudslide which obliterated the village of Quejá in north-west Guatemala.

One resident, in a post aired on social media, said everything had happened in an instant. At least 15 houses were believed to have been swept away, burying residents.

Rescue workers battled on foot through the muddy rubble, before finally reaching the devastated village.

Dr Giammattei, who is a medical doctor, said only one out of three aircraft had made it through to the affected area at the weekend because of bad weather.

Juan Orlando Hernández, Honduras president, said some 7,000 people were still stranded.

Thousands across the region have been moved to shelters as governments mobilised emergency food and rescue operations.

Mr Hernández celebrated the rescue of 500 people, including a two-day-old baby, and in a video posted on social media by the US Joint Task Force Bravo, a soldier could be seen being winched to safety with a toddler in his arms.

US helicopters were also supporting the relief effort in Guatemala, where at least a dozen bridges and four roads had been destroyed by the torrential flows.

As the region’s leaders sent their messages of congratulations to Mr Biden, Eta underscored their reliance on US aid and hopes that the new administration would adopt a more humane approach to immigration from the poverty-stricken region than the clampdown adopted by Donald Trump.

Mr Biden has promised $1bn in aid a year for the so-called Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. But instead of feeling aid was a “blank cheque” as long as they complied with Mr Trump’s curbs on asylum and migration, aid from the Biden administration “will likely come with conditions — a commitment to fighting corruption, to human rights and the rule of law”, said Maureen Meyer at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think-tank.

The incoming administration is already bracing for potential new caravans of immigrants headed for the US — a prospect Eta only amplified.

Ms Meyer said the storm damage could “cause a renewal” of people seeking so-called temporary protected status in the US — a status granted to Salvadorans, Hondurans and Nicaraguans after natural disasters in the past, that Mr Trump threatened to scrap.

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