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Guatemala searches, Eta regains storm status, heads to Cuba

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PURULHA, Guatemala (AP) — Searchers in Guatemala dug through mud and debris looking for an estimated 100 people believed buried by a massive, rain-fueled landslide, as Tropical Storm Eta continued to gain strength Saturday and churned toward Cuba and southern Florida.

The US National Hurricane Center said Eta was located about 85 miles (135 kms) west-south-west of Camaguey, Cuba, Saturday and was moving north-east at 16 mph (26 kph) with winds of 60 mph (95 kph). The storm was expected to be near Cuba Saturday night and Sunday, and approach the Florida Keys or south Florida late Sunday.

Tropical storm warnings were issued for central Cuba, southern Florida and the Florida Keys. The hurricane centre said flash floods could occur in the Cayman Islands, Jamaica and The Bahamas. Parts of southern Florida and the Keys were even put under a hurricane watch.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency Saturday for eight counties at the end of the state as Eta approached, urging residents to stock up on supplies. South Florida started emptying ports and a small number of shelters opened in Miami and the Florida Keys for residents in mobile homes and low-lying areas.

The storm’s threat comes as many streets across South Florida have been inundated by heavy rains and unusual King Tides.

Back in Central America, which Eta reached as a Category 4 hurricane Tuesday before weakening into a tropical depression, authorities from Panama to Mexico were still surveying the damages from flooding and landslides following days of torrential rains. The confirmed death toll was in the dozens and expected to rise.

Search teams in Guatemalan began pulling the first bodies from a landslide in San Cristobal Verapaz, but the work was slow and help was trickling in. Teams first had to overcome multiple landslides and deep mud just to reach the site where officials have estimated some 150 homes were devastated.

In the village of Quej, where a hillside collapsed onto homes, rescue workers used a helicopter to evacuate survivor Emilio Caal, who said he lost as many as 40 family members and relatives. Caal suffered a dislocated shoulder when the landslide sent rocks, trees and earth hurtling onto the home where he was about to sit down to lunch with his wife and grandchildren. Caal said he was blown several yards (meters) by the force of the slide, and that none of the others were able to get out.

“My wife is dead, my grandchildren are dead,” said Caal from a nearby hospital.

In neighbouring Honduras, 68-year-old Mara Elena Meja Guadron died when the brown waters of the Chamelecon river poured into San Pedro Sula’s Planeta neighbourhood before dawn Thursday.

Mirian Esperanza Njera Meja had fled her home in the dark with her two children and Meja, her mother. But while she held tight to her children, the current swept away Meja.

Njera continued searching desperately for her mother Friday morning. But Meja’s body was recovered later and taken to the morgue where her relatives identified her.

“When the flooding started, the whole family was leaving the house,” said family friend Nery Solis. “Mirian had her two children and suddenly the current grabbed them and she wasn’t able to get her mom.”

The family transported Meja’s body to the western city of Copan Friday. Her burial was scheduled for Saturday.

In southern Mexico, across the border from Guatemala, 20 people died as heavy rains attributed to Eta caused mudslides and swelled streams and rivers, according to Chiapas state civil defense official Elas Morales Rodrguez.

The worst incident in Mexico occurred in the mountain township of Chenalho, where 10 people were swept away by a rain-swollen stream; their bodies were later found downstream. Mexico’s National Meteorological Service said Eta’s “broad circulation is causing intense to torrential rains on the Yucatan peninsula and in south-eastern Mexico”.

Flooding in the neighbouring state of Tabasco was so bad that President Andrs Manuel Lpez Obrador cut short a trip to western Mexico and was flying to Tabasco, his home state, to oversee relief efforts.

But the massive slide in Guatemala’s central mountains threatened to double Central America’s reported death toll in one remote community.

Late Friday, army spokesman Rubn Tellez said soldiers and community members had recovered the first three bodies. Hundreds of tons of mud, rock and debris entombed others.

Rescue teams struggled for hours Friday to reach the site from two different approaches. Smaller landslides blocked highways and decimated the dirt road leading to the community of Queja at the base of the slide. The indigenous community of about 1,200 residents consisted of simple homes of wood and tin roofs clinging to the mountainside.

Hurricane Eta’s arrival in northeast Nicaragua followed days of drenching rain as it crawled toward shore. Its slow, meandering path north through Honduras pushed rivers over their banks and pouring into neighbourhoods where families were forced onto rooftops to wait for rescue.

The Honduran Government estimates more than 1.6 million have been affected. It said rescues were happening Friday in San Pedro Sula and La Lima, but the need was great and resources limited.

In Florida, Miami Dade County declared a state of emergency Friday night and also warned a flood watch would be in effect through Tuesday night.

Further south in the Keys, officials were monitoring the storm closely, but had no plans yet to evacuate tourists or residents. They urged residents to secure their boats and encouraged visitors to consider altering plans until Eta had passed.

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