Nearly 200, 000 homes destroyed by flood in Guatemala

Authorities reaching new communities previously cutoff from the outside world by flood waters raised the number of Guatemalans whose homes were damaged, destroyed, or threatened by new rain fall to 200,000, but the official death toll held steady at 652. Emergency response teams were able to assess the damage to isolated villages deep in the mountains of San Marcos province, near the border with Mexico, for the first time Tuesday, nearly a week after relentless rain triggered flooding and mudslides.

Agriculture Secretary Alvaro Aguilar said in an interview that officials had now reached 95 percent of the 515 estimated communities across Guatemala hit by flooding.

The death toll from landslides and flooding stands at 652, but the number of missing whose bodies may never be recovered has risen to nearly 600, meaning more than 1,200 people may have been killed nationwide.

Another 133 people died in El Salvador, Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras due to the heavy rains. Helping to spark the downpours were weather patterns associated with Hurricane Stan, which came ashore along Mexico's Gulf Coast on Oct. 4, and brought flooding of its own before weakening.

But nowhere was the devastation more widespread than Guatemala. Some 120,000 residents continue to live in shelters after flooding forced them to flee their homes.

In all, 200,000 people were considered "directly affected" by heavy rains, meaning that their homes were damaged, destroyed or rendered temporarily uninhabitable because of the threat of flooding from new rains, said Hugo Hernandez, director of the country's disaster response agency.

A massive mudslide in Panabaj, close to Santiago Atitlan, about 90 miles (140 kilometers) west of Guatemala City, buried a total of around 400 people, President Oscar Berger said during a visit to the now-disappeared hamlet on the shores of Lake Atitlan. A second horrific mudslide occurred further to the west in San Marcos province, where at least 80 people who sought shelter from heavy rains in an evangelical meeting hall in the town of Tacana were buried by a river of mud.

Authorities in those areas and elsewhere have begun abandoning efforts to recover bodies and turn to international agencies to help feed, clothe and treat tens of thousands of residents who survived _ but lost everything.

Berger and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu arrived here by helicopter Tuesday to the cheers and hugs of hundreds of people who swarmed Santiago Atitlan's town square, a stone courtyard fronting a 16th-century church, reports the AP. I.L.

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