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 CNS Story:

CENTAM-STAN Oct-10-2005 (750 words) With photos. xxxi

Death count from Hurricane Stan rises in Mexico, Central America

By Jason Lange
Catholic News Service

MEXICO CITY (CNS) -- The death count from Hurricane Stan continued to rise in Mexico and Central America as rescue workers reached towns cut off by massive floods and mudslides.

The storm, which churned into Mexico's Gulf Coast Oct. 4 before unleashing heavy rains onto much of Central America, left more than 600 confirmed dead and more than 1,000 more missing in the region, though relief workers said the number could be much higher and warned that residents could be dogged by disease and food shortages for months.

The storm slammed into the Mexican state of Veracruz as a Category 1 hurricane with winds of 80 mph, although it caused relatively little damage on the coast and quickly dissipated into a tropical storm.

But as the storm moved south through Mexico and hovered over Guatemala and El Salvador for several days, rivers overflowed to swallow neighborhoods and destroy roads, and mountainsides soaked with torrential downpours collapsed onto towns.

A massive mudslide in Guatemala buried the entire village of Panabaj, killing as many as 1,400 people, local authorities told Reuters, the British news agency. Flash floods tore apart sections of San Salvador. And in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, relief workers said food supplies were running low as now-nonexistent roads left many towns completely isolated.

"It's still a red-alert situation," said Rick Jones, country representative for the Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador, in an Oct. 9 telephone interview from San Salvador. CRS is the U.S. bishops' international relief and development agency.

CRS is working with dioceses throughout Central America to deliver emergency aid to victims, and Jones said he was worried there could be more mudslides because more rain was forecast for the region.

"People are still very cautious. There's a lot of anxiety about how much more water we can take," Jones said.

San Salvador suffered the majority of the more than 70 confirmed deaths in El Salvador, and more than 62,000 Salvadorans were living in shelters, Jones said.

El Salvador's woes were compounded by two currently active volcanoes. The Ilamatepec volcano erupted Oct. 1 and threatened to cause more mudslides as it continued to rumble along with the San Miguel volcano.

One week after Stan hit, rescue efforts continued, albeit slowly, throughout the region, as many isolated villages were still not reachable.

"The mudslide that buried Panabaj was probably one of many such tragedies," said Lane Bunkers, CRS country representative in Guatemala. "It's very, very bad, and as we get out to more villages we are going to find more and more deaths."

Bunkers and other relief workers said deforestation of hillsides was partially to blame for the severity of the mudslides. Trees work to hold mountain soil firm, lowering the risk of mudslides.

"Hopefully this will serve as a wake-up call," Bunkers said.

The scope of the flooding is also due to the timing of the storm.

"The storm hit in the sixth month of a six-month rainy season," Jones said. "Any more heavy rains will likely cause flash floods" in El Salvador.

Guatemala was the hardest-hit country in the region, with more than 500 deaths already confirmed. Vice President Eduardo Stein Barillas told local radio that rescue workers might not dig out Panabaj, instead leaving the buried village as a national cemetery.

In Mexico, 30 people reportedly perished, mostly in Chiapas.

"The situation is critical," said Eufemio Flores, who coordinates disaster relief for Mexico's chapter of Caritas, a confederation of international Catholic humanitarian organizations.

In a telephone interview from Tapachula, Flores said some 5,000 people in Chiapas were still in shelters being run by the Catholic Church. In the Tapachula area alone, hundreds were still unaccounted for, he said.

"The outlook is depressing. They don't know where their families are," Flores said.

Mexican President Vicente Fox said the storm caused about 20 billion pesos (US$1.9 billion) in damage, and he vowed to rebuild affected communities.

"Fortunately, the storm has passed, and now we can get to work," Fox said Oct. 9.

Deaths were also reported in Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica.

Jones and other relief workers said the flooding probably has contaminated many of the region's wells, heightening the dangers of cholera, dengue and other epidemics.

And in El Salvador, crop losses were estimated at $10 million, Jones said.

"All of the beans and corn that should have been harvested in November have been lost," he said.


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