Rescue workers pulled bodies Saturday from Guatemalan villages devastated by mudslides, and other volunteers used hand tools, machetes and their bare hands to dig for more victims as the aftermath of Hurricane Stan continued to wreak havoc across northern Central America.
Guatemalan officials said 508 people had been killed and 337 others were missing in the country as a result of flooding and mudslides caused by the hurricane that roared across the region last week. More than 100 other deaths have been reported in Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
The village of Panabaj on Lake Atitlan, a popular tourist destination in Guatemala’s western highlands, was particularly hard hit. Part of a rain-soaked volcano collapsed there early Wednesday, sending down waves of mud, rocks and other debris that killed at least 71 people.
Survivors reported hearing a terrible roar, leading some to believe that an earthquake or volcanic eruption was occurring.
The landslide, which buried several small coffee-growing communities ringing the lake, was believed to be the worst catastrophe spawned by several days of torrential rains. By Saturday, residents of some lakeside communities were speculating that, because so many bodies would not be retrievable, certain areas might have to be designated as mass burial grounds.
Some survivors of the lakeside disaster told reporters that as many as 1,500 people might have been buried in the mudslide in the Santiago Atitlan region. Officials said they had not been able to confirm those reports because the area was inaccessible. Efforts to determine the number of dead and missing have been hindered by rain.
“We cannot confirm what the people of Santiago Atitlan are saying,” said Ana Luisa Olmedo of the National Agency for Disaster Control. “Since we cannot confirm the situation there in Santiago, our main priority at the moment is to bring food to the people that have been evacuated.”
The center estimates that more than 100,000 Guatemalans in more than 400 communities have been affected by the disaster and that thousands have been evacuated to shelters. Across the country, work crews were using heavy machinery to clear roads and highways of fallen trees and other obstructions.
Across Central America, residents are returning to their villages to discover that their homes and businesses are under water or have been swept away. In some rural communities, entire families have been killed.
In Mexico, in the Atlantic coast state of Veracruz, which Hurricane Stan passed after making landfall Tuesday, at least six people were killed. President Vicente Fox and his wife, First Lady Marta Sahagun, spent Saturday touring devastated areas in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, and joined rescue workers in distributing water, food and clothing.
“It’s hard, it’s so hard,” Fox said on TV from Tapachula, in southern Chiapas near the Guatemalan border, where 2,500 homes were destroyed. “I can understand why the people are crying, why they yell for help.”
In many areas, the destruction is the worst suffered since 1998, when Hurricane Mitch tore through the region, leaving more than 10,000 people dead.
Special correspondent Renderos reported from Guatemala City and Times staff writer Johnson from Mexico City. Wire services were used in compiling this report.