Storm death toll rises in Central America

Flooding and landslides from the season's first tropical storm leaves at least 150 people dead and thousands more homeless.

GUATEMALA CITY // Flooding and landslides from the season's first tropical storm have killed at least 150 people and left thousands homeless in Central America, officials said. Dozens of people were missing and emergency crews struggled to reach isolated communities cut off by washed-out roads and collapsed bridges caused by Tropical Storm Agatha. The hardest-hit region was Guatemala, where officials reported 123 dead and at least 90 missing. In the department of Chimaltenango - a province west of Guatemala City - landslides buried dozens of rural Indian communities and killed at least 60 people, Governor Erick de Leon said.

"The department has collapsed," Mr de Leon said. "There are a lot of dead people. The roads are blocked. The shelters are overflowing. We need water, food, clothes, blankets - but above all, money." In the tiny village of Parajbei, a slide smothered three homes and killed 11 people. "It was raining really hard and there was a huge noise," said Vicente Azcaj, 56, who ran outside and saw that a hill had crumbled. "Now everyone is afraid that the same will happen to their homes."

Volunteers from nearby villages have worked non-stop since Sunday to recover the bodies in Parajbei. Yesterday they found the last two: brothers, aged four and eight, who were buried under tons of dirt, rocks and trees. As a thank you, rescuers got a plate of rice and beans from the mayor of nearby Santa Apolonia. "It's a small thing, but it comes from the heart," Tulio Nunez told them through a translator.

Mr Nunez said he worried about the well-being of survivors in the area because landslides blocked roads and broke water pipes. "They don't have anything to drink," he said. In total about 110,000 people were evacuated in Guatemala. Thousands more fled their homes in neighbouring Honduras, where the death toll rose to 17 while meteorologists predicted three more days of rain. Two dams near the capital of Tegucigalpa overflowed into a nearby river and officials warned people to stay away from swollen waterways.

"The risk is enormous," Mayor Ricardo Alvarez said. In El Salvador, 11,000 people were evacuated. The death toll rose to 10 and two others were missing, president Mauricio Funes said last night. Landslides affected about 95 per cent of the country's roads, but most remained open, transportation minister Gerson Martinez said. He said 179 bridges had been wrecked. The Lempa River, which flows to the Pacific, topped its banks and flooded at least 20 villages, affecting some 6,000 people, said Jorge Melendez, director of the civil protection agency.

Officials warned that the Acelhuate River, which cuts through San Salvador, was running at dangerously high levels and threatened to spill over into the capital's streets. Mr Melendez said classes would be suspended today in all primary and secondary schools and public and private universities across El Salvador. Agatha made landfall near the Guatemala-Mexico border on Saturday as a tropical storm with winds up to 75 kph. It dissipated the following day over the mountains of western Guatemala.

Rescue efforts in Guatemala have been complicated by a volcanic eruption on Thursday near the capital that blanketed parts of the area with ash. * AP