Rescuers dig after Central America storm kills 146


People caked in dirt searched for their loved ones as the stench of mud and sewage from flooded drains filled the air of towns outside Guatemala City and emergency workers urged survivors to leave ruined houses and go to shelters.

The first named storm of the 2010 Pacific hurricane season, Agatha slammed into Guatemala on Saturday, dumping more than 3 feet (1 meter) of rain in the mountainous west of the country and in neighboring El Salvador, and sparking worries about damage to the coffee crop in both countries.

“I’ve got no one to help me. I watched the water take everything,” said Carlota Ramos in the town of Amatitlan near the Guatemalan capital, crying into her hands outside her brick house almost completely swamped by mud.

As the sun came out, exhausted rescue workers hauled away stones and tree trunks from crushed houses as they fought to reach wounded people and find dozens still missing.

“We just have shovels and picks. We don’t have any machinery to dig,” said firefighter Mario Cruz, who had been working almost nonstop since Friday night.

Other rescuers walked for several hours along muddy tracks to reach trapped villagers and pull them out of collapsed homes. “We had to walk with our equipment through the mountains, rescue people and then walk back again,” said firefighter Rony Veliz. “It’s been very hard.”

At least 123 people had died in Guatemala, and 59 others were missing, according to the government. Nine people were killed in El Salvador and 14 in Honduras, including a woman who was electrocuted as she was helped from her flooded home.

Helicopters ferried tents and medical supplies to remote towns on Guatemala’s Pacific coast and the first foreign aid began to flow in on Monday.

The U.S. government donated $113,000 to pay for emergency supplies and to charter private helicopters to assist in the relief effort. The Guatemalan government is expected to formally appeal for aid by Tuesday.

More than 94,000 people have been evacuated as the storm buried homes under mud, swept away a highway bridge near Guatemala City and opened up sinkholes in the capital.

“I’ve lost everything but my two dogs,” said a man sitting outside the ruins of his wooden house just outside Guatemala City. Another man said he saw his wife and two daughters swept away as they tried to cross a river to safety.

COFFEE PESTS FEARED

Agatha dissipated as it crossed Guatemala. But there was concern over the condition of the coffee crop in Guatemala, the region’s biggest producer, and El Salvador, where the worst of the rain fell in the main coffee-growing area.

Some coffee trees are at risk of a destructive fungus in the wake of Agatha but mudslides and collapsed bridges made it hard to assess the damage, growers said.

Gerardo de Leon, commercial manager of a group of 120 farms across Guatemala, said intense humidity was likely to damage some crops. “The humidity during and after the storm causes fungus in the plants. That’s the problem,” he told Reuters.

Central America is vulnerable to heavy rains due to its mountainous terrain, while poor communications in rural areas complicate rescue efforts. Last November’s Hurricane Ida caused flooding and mudslides that killed at least 150 people as it moved through the region.

Guatemalan officials have warned the flooding from Agatha could be worsened by ash from the Pacaya volcano blocking drains.

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