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Deadly tropical storm weakens after walloping Central America

At least 89 are dead as rain causes flooding and mudslides in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. 'Life-threatening flash floods' could occur if more rain falls, U.S. forecasters say.

May 31, 2010|By Alex Renderos, Special to The Times

Reporting from San Salvador — — Tropical Storm Agatha began to wane Sunday after deluging parts of Central America and southern Mexico, displacing tens of thousands of people and leaving at least 89 dead, officials said.

The season's first tropical storm destroyed homes, cut roads, triggered mudslides and flooded villages in Guatemala and El Salvador. Even as it dissipated over Guatemala's western hills, it threatened to dump more rain on the region in the next two days that could cause "life-threatening flash floods," the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in an advisory posted on its website.

Guatemalan government emergency relief authorities reported at least 82 dead in their country. At least six people were killed in El Salvador and one in Honduras, with many people still reported missing throughout the region. Many of the dead were crushed by tumbling boulders and debris or swept away in rain-swollen rivers and drowned.

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes put the nation on high alert and canceled school classes for Monday. Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom dispatched firefighters to search for victims buried in mud.

Guatemala was already reeling from the eruption last week of the Pacaya volcano, which dumped thick black ash on the capital and other parts of the country and forced the closure of the international airport.

"We were just getting past the Pacaya volcano emergency and now we are confronted with a bigger emergency, and so I ask Guatemalans to be stoic," Colom said in a news conference.

He said the Guatemala City area had received more rain in a half-day period than at any time since 1949.

Nearly 70,000 people were evacuated in Guatemala and as many as 5,000 lost their homes, national disaster relief officials said. Colom said U.S. military helicopters from the Palmerola air base in Honduras were joining search-and-rescue missions.

About 5,000 people had to be evacuated and placed in shelters in El Salvador, and close to 2,000 in Honduras.

Authorities said the death toll in all three countries could rise as remote areas were still unreachable.

Central America, with mountainous terrain, shoddily constructed housing and poor roads, is especially vulnerable to damage from storms and has suffered through numerous deadly hurricanes in the last 12 years.

Renderos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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