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Central America Floods Claim More Than 1,000

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cutting a broad path of destruction across Central America on Sunday, rains from tropical storm Mitch swelled rivers, carried away bridges, washed out roads and left more than 1,000 people dead from the Caribbean to the Pacific.

Among the dead was popular Tegucigalpa Mayor Cesar Castellanos, whose helicopter crashed Sunday afternoon--his 49th birthday--while flying over damaged areas of the Honduran capital.

Nicaragua and Honduras--where Mitch had hovered off the coast for days as a rare Category 5 hurricane--suffered the worst devastation from the storm. Still, other countries Sunday were feeling the wrath of the deluge as it spread west to El Salvador over the weekend and was moving north toward Guatemala, where 30,000 people had been evacuated.

Flooding caused mudslides that buried entire communities in El Salvador and Nicaragua, while rivers overflowed their banks, washing away houses, factories and crops throughout the region. More than 1,000 inhabitants were feared dead in the western Nicaraguan town of Posoltega, and 100 more were thought to have been killed in Chilanguera in eastern El Salvador.

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Nicaragua was recording the highest number of casualties, with 471 people confirmed dead and 2,190 missing, according to the Red Cross. The government estimate was 226 dead.

“The number of deaths is rising by the minute,” said Leonora Rivera, spokeswoman for the Nicaraguan Red Cross.

The government estimated that 414,648 people had been driven from their homes by flooding and mudslides. In a country that had almost finished rebuilding the roads and bridges destroyed in a civil war that ended in 1990, 16 bridges had been washed away and 31 damaged, while 1,500 miles of roads were destroyed.

Both bridges across the Rio Lempa, El Salvador’s largest river, collapsed, splitting the country. In Honduras, Tegucigalpa was thrown into chaos by the collapse of bridges that connected the various parts of the capital and provided access to the major industrial city of San Pedro Sula. Honduras reportedly lost 79 bridges in all.

“This was a tragedy on a national level,” said Rep. Carlos Santos. As of late Sunday, 231 people in Honduras were confirmed dead, and damage was estimated at $3 billion.

While the diving resorts of the Bay Islands off northern Honduras were battered the worst by the hurricane last week, the rest of the country was devastated by weekend floods after the storm was downgraded from hurricane status.

In the southern Honduran town of Nacaome, residents climbed into trees to escape flood waters, Rep. Manuel Vides said in an interview with the radio station Voice of the West. Mitch blew through the western provinces on the way to Guatemala, forcing the evacuation of 1,800 people and destroying nearly 100 houses in three provinces, said Col. Alberto Oyuela, the army officer in charge of the area.

“We have lost most of the corn crop,” Copan provincial Gov. Angel Antonio Guerra said in Honduras as he inspected damage to a bridge that is the only access to seven communities, including the famous Copan Maya ruins. “Look, in the river, you can see the vultures feeding off a drowned cow. We have lost our cattle.”

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Bridges that were still standing Sunday were covered with mud and rocks from when rivers overran them Saturday night. Authorities closed the two main border crossings from El Salvador to Honduras on Saturday because of highway flooding and rockslides.

When the crossings reopened Sunday morning, inspectors were halting food exports from Honduras to mitigate expected shortages. Price gouging on beans and corn was reported throughout the nation.

Police ordered private cars to stay off the streets of Tegucigalpa to keep onlookers out of the way of rescue operations.

Here in La Lima, in northern Honduras, children were swimming in the muddy waters that engulfed their homes when the Ulua and Chamelecon rivers overflowed their banks, forming a lake.

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Cristobal Calix and Rosa Rivera had been living with their four children in a lean-to formed by three sheets of zinc at the side of the highway near their flooded house. They said they were afraid that if they went to a shelter, looters would steal what little had not been destroyed in the house they built 10 years ago.

Other Hondurans in a car pulled up Sunday, handing out donations, but Rivera did not join the crowd of people moving toward it.

“If I go, my children could be injured in the crush, and if I leave them here alone, they could run out into the traffic,” she explained.

Pedro Espinoza, 60, sent his wife and four children to stay with friends while he and his dog, Superman, guarded their house. Superman swam out to stand guard on the roof Saturday when it became visible again. But on Sunday, when the water had dropped to the level of the windows, he was afraid to jump down.

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Concern about the dog added to Espinoza’s worries about rebuilding his home.

“I have worked for the city for 24 years, and I only make $120 a month,” he said. “For us to recover on the little I earn, we will never do it.”


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