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Deadly Guatemala mudslide was preceded by hazard warnings

Deadly Guatemala mudslide was preceded by hazard warnings
Volunteer firefighters and rescue workers search for victims in the Cambray II neighborhood on the outskirts of Guatemala City. (Johan Ordonez / AFP/Getty Images)

When her house began to shake and the lights went dark, Alba Sen Pu froze, along with her husband and four children.

A few minutes later, after the rumbling, shaking and screaming had stopped, Sen Pu, 32, told her husband she was going to check on her parents and siblings. They lived nearby in Guatemala's Cambray II neighborhood, at the base of a hillside on the outskirts of Guatemala City.

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"The idea did not seem likely but I had the hope they were still in the house," she said.

But she couldn't even find her parents' modest home. It was one of the many houses in the neighborhood buried under layers of mud unleashed by a massive landslide.

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Whole families were wiped out last week by the earth that came tumbling down the hill near the Pinula River. As of Thursday, the official death count was 220, with hundreds still missing.

Several hundred people were being housed in shelters run by the local government, according to the National Disaster Reduction Committee, known as Conred.

The agency has said it issued a number of warnings about the instability in the area in recent years. Officials this week declared the area uninhabitable. The country's prosecutor's office has announced an investigation of the matter.

Manuel Pocasangre, the communications director for the municipality of Santa Catarina Pinula, which includes Cambray II, said state employees in recent years had gone door-to-door to talk to people about the risks of where they lived.

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"What we know is that people were conscious about the risk they were taking," Pocasangre said Wednesday.

Sen Pu cried Thursday as she spoke of her loss. At the municipal cemetery, she had stood next to a wall of grave openings where the bodies of her mother Ceferina, 46, and her siblings Nelson, 23; Rony, 20; and Astrid, 14; were being laid to rest. After the bodies were placed inside, she scrawled their names into the still-fresh cement.

"Our parents always taught us how important family was. We were a close family," she said.

Her father, Diego, 60, was also believed killed by the landslide. Alba Sen Pu and her sister Glenda were expected to go to the morgue to identify his body.

"It's hard to lose so many family members and know you are never going to see them again. And it hurts knowing the way they died," said Glenda, 30, who went to the cemetery with Alba.

Their sister Brenda, 25, the other sibling in the house with their parents that night, was listed as missing.

The Sen Pu family has lived in the Cambray II neighborhood for 21 years. Alba and Glenda frequently went to their parents' place to eat a meal or celebrate a birthday.

Alba Sen Pu acknowledged that government warnings about the safety of the area may not have made much difference to her and her family.

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"If I had known there was risk," she said, "I might not have left because we don't have the resources to buy or rent a house."

Special correspondents Brigida and Bonello reported from Guatemala City and Mexico City, respectively.

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