GUATEMALA CITY (AFP) – The death toll from landslides in Guatemala rose to 36 on Sunday as President Alvaro Colom declared the disaster a “national tragedy.”
Officials had earlier put the death toll at 27, but the figure was rising rapidly as rescuers uncovered the bodies of people caught in torrents of mud loosened by heavy rains.
“It’s a national tragedy,” Colom said as he visited a site where up to 40 people were feared to have been buried alive in a mudslide.
“This weekend alone we have seen damage comparable to what we experienced with Agatha,” he said, referring to a tropical storm in May that killed 165 Guatemalans and left thousands homeless.
“It’s tragic that poor people are the ones suffering the most from these natural phenomena,” he added.
A state of emergency has been declared in the country amid fears that dozens more victims could be found entombed in mud. Officials said 40,000 people had been made homeless and another 10,000 had been evacuated.
Rescuers on Sunday dug nine bodies out of a 300-meter (1,000-foot) deep ravine off the main Pan-American Highway, west of the capital Guatemala City.
Fire service spokesman Cecilio Chacaj told AFP some 40 people had been swept away by a second mudslide as they tried to help the occupants of five vehicles and a bus hit by the initial landslide.
“Top priority at present is dealing with this emergency,” Colom said as he toured the devastation and put the cost of the damage, in one of the poorest countries in the Americas, at up to 500 million dollars.
Ten people were killed in a separate incident on Saturday when a second bus on the main highway was buried near the town of Chimaltenango. Rescuers managed to unearth 20 survivors.
A landslide also buried a family of four inside their house in the western region of Quetzaltenango, while four more people were killed in separate incidents around the country.
With more heavy rain forecast, authorities have closed part of the Pan-American Highway and evacuated 4,000 people from homes considered at risk.
“This section of the road has been declared impassable,” Communications, Infrastructure and Housing Minister Guillermo Castillo told reporters.
“It will not reopen until we are sure a similar tragedy will not occur again.
President Colom warned he had little funds left to cope with the disaster as the country was still struggling to recover from Agatha’s passage in May, which killed 165 Guatemalans and left thousands homeless.