Severe flooding has claimed the lives of more than 80 people and displaced thousands in the wake of some of the region’s heaviest rains since Hurricane Mitch ravaged Central America in 1998. After rainfall totals reached nearly 40 inches in 72 hours in the hardest-hit areas of El Salvador and Guatemala, officials in both countries declared states of emergency and issued mandatory evacuation orders to residents of low-lying areas.
According to Salvadoran emergency management office director Jorge Melendez, the downpours in El Salvador have left “27 people dead, the majority of them from mudslides that hit their dwellings.” A total of 13,874 people have been moved to 209 shelters, said Melendez. In neighboring Guatemala, 28 people have died and the death toll is expected to rise.
The immediate response of governments in the region has focused on search and rescue operations, particularly in rural areas. Already, however, analysts are predicting billions of dollars in economic losses as a result of the storm. Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes yesterday launched an appeal for international humanitarian aid. Thus far, Venezuela has pledged support and Spain has responded by sending 20 tons of supplies, including tents and hygiene kits.
In less than 11 hours, six earthquakes struck Guatemala starting at noon local time on September 19. The southeastern area of Santa Rosa was the most affected by earthquakes that ranged from 4.5 to 5.8 magnitude on the Richter scale. The size and frequency struck the same region unexpectedly. The results: almost 5,000 people have been affected and more than 1,200 houses damaged, and encampments now dot the area after many residents lost their homes and belongings.
The government entity in charge of emergency response, Coordinadora Nacional para la Reducción de Desastres (CONRED), set up nine refuge centers for 3,500 people, confirmed spokesman David de Leon. This disaster comes after the same area was flooded in August and the River San Juan burst its banks. INSIVUMEH (Instituto Nacional de Sismología, Vulcanología, Meteorología e Hidrología) reported that August’s rainfall was 40 percent above the monthly average and in September it was still above average—by about 12 percent. The amount of rain has created massive avalanches and cut off villages with landslides killing at least four people.
But event with a state of disaster being declared in Santa Rosa, Congress has been criticized for failing to release funds to emergency response and relief services. Finance Minister Rolando del Cid Pinillos told Emisoras Unidas, the largest national radio station, that “it would be difficult to fund CONRED in the result of a disaster in Guatemala.” This bureaucratic uncertainty makes recovery even more perilious.