TEGUCIGALPA – The rain-heavy remnants of Hurricane Eta flooded homes from Panama to Guatemala Thursday as the death toll across Central America rose to at least 57, and aid organizations warned the flooding and mudslides were creating a slow-moving humanitarian disaster across the region.
The storm that hit Nicaragua as a mighty Category 4 hurricane on Tuesday had become more of a vast tropical rainstorm, but it was advancing so slowly and dumping so much rain that much of Central America remained on high alert. Forecasters said the now-tropical depression was expected to regather and head toward Cuba and possibly the Gulf of Mexico by early next week.
On Thursday afternoon, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei said a water-soaked mountainside in the central part of the country had slid down onto the town of San Cristobal Verapaz, burying homes and leaving at least 25 dead.
Two other slides in Huehuetenango had killed at least 12 more, he said. The president initially said more than 50 people had died in slides, but the individual incidents he cited did not reach that total. Later, David de León, spokesman for the national disaster agency, said there were reports of 50 people missing in the Verapaz slide, but government rescue teams had not reached the site.
Earlier Thursday, five others had been killed in smaller slides in Guatemala.
Giammattei said on that 60% of the eastern city of Puerto Barrios was flooded and 48 more hours of rain was expected.
Guatemala’s toll was on top of 13 victims in Honduras and two in Nicaragua. Panamanian authorities reported eight missing.
Eta had sustained winds of 35 mph (55 kph) and was moving north at 8 mph (13 kph) Thursday. It was centered 85 miles (140 kilometers) northwest of La Ceiba, Honduras.
In Honduras, National Police said Thursday that six more bodies had been found, bringing that country's toll to 13. The bodies of two adults and two children were found after excavations in a mudslide that occurred Wednesday in the township of Gualala, and two boys aged 8 and 11 died in another mudslide in El Níspero.
Earlier, residents found the body of a girl buried in a landslide Wednesday in mountains outside the north coast city of Tela. In the same area, a landslide buried a home with a mother and two children inside it, according to Honduras Fire Department spokesman Óscar Triminio. He said there was also a 2-year-old girl killed in Santa Barbara department when she was swept away by floodwaters.
Hundreds of residents of San Pedro Sula neighborhoods had to abandon their homes before dawn Thursday when water from the Chamelecon river arrived at their doorsteps.
Miguel Angel Beltran, a security guard from the city’s Planeta neighborhood, said his district was lost and many people were missing or drowned.
“We rescued my brothers, all the family from a balcony, a three-story building,” he said. “How is it possible that a government has done nothing to warn people.”
His family lost everything and had nowhere to go, he said. The few boats rescuing people had no motors and struggled against the current, he said.
Marvin Aparicio of Honduras’ emergency management agency said 41 communities have been cut off by washed out roads.
Luis Alonso Salas, a 45-year-old construction worker, stood on high ground at a gas station where people who fled their homes picked over a pile of donated clothing.
“It was terrible, I lost my whole house, I couldn’t take anything,” he said. At 1 a.m. water was up to his neck. He said others in his neighborhood were still waiting for rescuers in boats from atop their roofs.
Maite Matheu, country director for the international humanitarian organization CARE, said Thursday that some 2 million Hondurans could be directly impacted by the storm.
“The situation that we are seeing today is very, very alarming,” she said. “Mainly the people and families that need to be evacuated right now. There are dozens of families in some towns in the Sula valley who are on their roofs and are asking to be evacuated.”
She said Honduras' government did not have the capacity to rescue people.
Giammattei, Guatemala’s president, said his Honduran counterpart Juan Orlando Hernández requested help, but that blocked roads made it impossible to do so.
Matheu said her organization was helping gather information about the most pressing needs across Honduras. The food supply was a real concern, she said. The country’s road network is badly damaged, airports were closed and much of the Sula valley, the country’s most agriculturally productive, was flooded.
“The impact on crops is going to be enormous,” Matheu said. The storm’s impact would only increase the pressure on a desperate population to migrate, she added.
In Panama, at least eight people were reported missing after flooding and landslides in the province of Chiriqui, which borders Costa Rica.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center forecast that parts of Nicaragua and Honduras could receive 15 to 25 inches (380 to 635 millimeters) of rain, with 40 inches (1,000 millimeters) possible in some isolated parts.
When what’s left of the storm wobbles back into the Caribbean it will regain some strength and become a tropical storm again, forecasts show.
And then Eta is predicted to slowly move toward Cuba and Florida, or at least close enough to Florida for forecasters to warn of 7 inches of rain for South Florida in the next five to seven days. And next week, Eta could even move into the Gulf of Mexico.
“Whatever comes out (of Central America) is going to linger awhile,” said Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach. “I’m not convinced we’re done with Eta.”
That’s because what’s left of Eta still has spin, which is hard to kill off, and that should help it reform, said NOAA hurricane and climate scientist Jim Kossin.
Once it reforms and heads toward Cuba, it could meander in the area for awhile.
“The winds aren’t going to be the problem. The rains are going to be the problem,” Klotzbach said.
Eta will be so big, wet and messy that it doesn’t have to make landfall in already rain-soaked South Florida to cause a mess, Klotzbach said.
“Slow-moving sprawling ugly tropical storms can certainly pack a precipitation wallop even if it doesn’t make landfall,” Klotzbach said.
Pérez D. reported from Guatemala City. Associated Press writers Marlon González in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Juan Zamorano in Panama City, Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Maryland and Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.