- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 12, 2005

SANTIAGO ATITLAN, Guatemala — Authorities reaching communities until now cut off by floodwaters raised the number of Guatemalans whose homes were damaged, destroyed or threatened by new rainfall to 200,000.

Emergency-response teams assessed the damage to isolated villages deep in the mountains of San Marcos province, near the border with Mexico, for the first time Tuesday — nearly a week after relentless rain caused flooding and mudslides.

Agriculture Minister Alvaro Aguilar said officials now have reached 95 percent of the 515 communities estimated to have been affected by flooding.

The death toll stood at 652, but the number of missing whose bodies may never be recovered rose to nearly 600, meaning more than 1,200 people may have been killed in Guatemala.

Another 133 persons died in El Salvador, Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras owing to the heavy rains, spawned in part by Hurricane Stan.

Nowhere was the devastation more widespread than in Guatemala. About 120,000 residents continue to live in shelters after flooding forced them to leave their homes.

In all, 200,000 people were considered “directly affected” by heavy rains, meaning that their homes were damaged, destroyed or rendered temporarily uninhabitable because of the threat of flooding from new rain, said Hugo Hernandez, director of the country’s disaster-response agency.

A huge mudslide buried 400 persons in Panabaj, close to Santiago Atitlan, about 90 miles west of Guatemala City, President Oscar Berger said during a visit to the now-disappeared hamlet on the shores of Lake Atitlan.

A second major mudslide farther west in San Marcos province engulfed at least 80 persons who had sought shelter from heavy rains in an evangelical meeting hall in the town of Tacana.

Mr. Berger and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu Tum arrived here by helicopter Tuesday to the cheers and hugs of hundreds of people who swarmed Santiago Atitlan’s town square, a stone courtyard fronting a 16th-century church.

The president hiked through the mudslide that buried Panabaj, a town he said would be abandoned forever.

Miss Menchu, a Maya herself, called on local communities to “preserve our culture and traditions,” despite the loss of life and likely relocation.

“Lake Atitlan is a mirror for many Maya peoples,” she said. “What we do here has to take into account the identity of all the Mayas.”

Guatemala appealed to the United Nations for $21.5 million in aid, and several countries already have offered to provide assistance, including flood-stricken Mexico.

U.S. helicopters shuttled food and water to isolated villages, and additional aid headed to both Guatemala and El Salvador, where 71 persons died in flooding and landslides.

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