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El Salvador storm toll rises to 136

Residents of the hard-hit town of Verapaz recall a thundering roar as earth and boulders poured down Chichontepec volcano, burying homes and inhabitants.

November 10, 2009|Alex Renderos and Ken Ellingwood

VERAPAZ, EL SALVADOR, AND MEXICO CITY — The hill-ringed town of Verapaz is now a wasteland of fallen boulders, thigh-deep mud and broken little houses.

Rescue workers and desperate residents dug amid the debris Monday for signs of those people still missing a day after severe flooding and landslides left at least 136 dead across El Salvador.

Verapaz, a bean- and coffee-growing town of 6,000, was one of the worst-hit spots. Earth and boulders poured down the side of Chichontepec volcano in a thunderous wave, burying some homes and inhabitants. The landslides followed days of rain and a punishing downpour over the weekend that pried the hillside loose.

Residents recounted the terror they felt Sunday as the ground rumbled with flowing debris in the early morning darkness.

"I started to hear roaring noises and the ground began to shake," said resident Marlene Ramirez. "Then my windows broke and lots of mud came in. I ran outside and climbed over the wall of the house next door to get on the roof."

Ramirez said every member of four neighboring families died in the crush of mud and rocks.

"All I could do from the roof was shout to my neighbors to get out," she said, weeping. "I shouted, 'Run, run, the volcano is falling down!' "

At least 16 Verapaz residents were reported killed and 47 others were unaccounted for -- most of the 60 people reported missing across the Central American nation.

Rescuers used shovels and tractors Monday to clear the river of oozing mud, search for missing people and salvage contents of ruined homes. But they had to struggle against 6-foot boulders and uprooted trees.

"We don't have enough heavy equipment to lift the rocks and look for the missing," said rescue worker Jose Arnulfo Membreno, looking sweaty and exhausted.

President Mauricio Funes, facing the first serious crisis of his 5-month-old term, toured Verapaz after declaring a state of emergency for the nation of 7 million. Funes urged Salvadoran lawmakers to approve $300 million in international loans, half of which would be used for reconstruction.

There were no immediate damage estimates.

The toll was visible, though, after rivers overwhelmed their banks and rain-sodden hills collapsed.

Nationwide, more than 13,600 people were evacuated, including in and around the capital, San Salvador, which also suffered heavy damage. Officials said 60% of the country was affected, and that about 2,000 homes were damaged. The death toll rose from 124 a night earlier as more victims were found in flood zones.

The heavy rains came from a weather system off the country's Pacific coast and were unrelated to Hurricane Ida, which swept along the region's Atlantic coast, according to the Miami-based National Hurricane Center. Ida caused relatively little damage as it brushed north past Mexico's Yucatan peninsula and entered the Gulf of Mexico. On Monday, it was downgraded to a tropical storm, moving toward the U.S. Gulf Coast.

In Verapaz and other Salvadoran communities, residents turned to burying their dead. Some places remained largely cut off because of collapsed roads and fallen trees and power lines.

Blue skies and bright sunshine in Verapaz gave residents a painfully clear view of the day-after mess.

Maria Trinidad Lopez, a 55-year-old laundrywoman, recalled taking refuge in a tree as the earth poured down. On Monday, her tiny house was almost completely buried.

"I've lost everything," she said. "I have no place to go, but by God's mercy, I am alive."

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

Renderos is a special correspondent.

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