Rescue teams inch toward storm-wrecked Guatemalan village, dozens missing

SAN CRISTOBAL VERAPAZ, Guatemala (Reuters) – Rescue workers on Saturday struggled over treacherous roads buried in mud and rubble to a remote mountain village in Guatemala swamped by a devastating storm that has killed dozens of people across Central America and southern Mexico.

FILE PHOTO: Women walk at an area affected by a mudslide after the passage of Storm Eta, in Purulha, Baja Verapaz, Guatemala, November 6, 2020. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

Storm Eta’s torrential downpours toppled trees, engorged swift-moving rivers, and ripped down parts of a mountainside above the village of Queja in the central Guatemalan region of Alta Verapaz, burying dozens of people in their homes.

The devastating weather front has spread destruction from Panama to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Mexico, which between them have registered well over 50 deaths.

A steady drizzle fell as firefighters in the town of San Cristobal Verapaz prepared to make the journey on foot to Queja, which they said could take a full day.

“An attempt was already made to get through but it’s very difficult and we’re really sad we couldn’t get through, but it’s very dangerous,” said Juan Alberto Leal, an official with the local fire service. “The problem is that there are several mudslides throughout the route.”

Ordinarily, the 22 kilometer (13.7 mile) trip between San Cristobal Verapaz and Queja takes an hour by car.

Still, some 55 soldiers, 25 firefighters and 15 police officers have managed to reach the site of the disaster.

President Alejandro Giammattei on Friday hinted up to 150 people could have been buried in the Queja landslide.

Guatemalan disaster relief agency Conred said 116 people were still missing and 12 confirmed dead in the country.

It was not the first time disaster struck this corner of Alta Verapaz. The area around Queja appeared to be the site of a huge landslide on a road pass a decade ago, which killed dozens, army spokesman Ruben Tellez said.

One of the fiercest storms to hit Central America in years, Eta struck Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane on Tuesday with winds of 150 miles per hour (241 kph).

Dumping relentless rains, it weakened to a tropical depression as it moved inland into Honduras and Guatemala before re-entering the Caribbean sea and advancing towards Cuba.

The Cuban meteorological office warned on Saturday of torrential rain and flooding as Eta churned northwards towards the island, and on track for Florida.

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