By LARRY ROHTER
MIAMI -- Intense
and widespread flooding in the wake of Hurricane Mitch has killed more
than 1,000 people in Central America, with hundreds more still missing, their villages buried
under huge mudslides, relief and government officials said Sunday.
Nicaragua, more than 360 bodies entombed overnight by one such avalanche
recovered during the day from settlements at the foot of the Casita Volcano, near Posoltega, about
45 miles northwest of Managua, the capital.
and extensive damage to roads and bridges hampered relief efforts all over
Nicaragua and Honduras, the countries most severely affected by the powerful late-season storm.
Some residents were evacuated from the area around Posoltega when rivers began rising late last
week, but officials said they expected the death toll in the area to rise.
were completely destroyed," said Leonora Rivera, a spokeswoman for the
Nicaraguan Red Cross. "The number of dead will increase considerably once it stops raining and we
can get into isolated areas," she added.
Nicaragua's Minister of Defense, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Barrios, said,
1,000 and 1,500 may have died" when mudslides on the slopes of the volcano came crashing down
on peasant villages at the bottom. "We are dealing with a national tragedy, which all of Nicaragua is
areas east of Managua have been inundated by rampaging flood waters, driving
thousands from their homes. Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua, normally separated by a narrow
strip of land, have risen so much and so rapidly that they have merged, leaving the town of Tipitapa
and sections of the Pan-American Highway under several feet of water.
"Not just this
country, but all of Central America is cut off," President Arnoldo Aleman
said in a televised address in which he urged vulnerable people to seek shelter on high ground. His
Honduran counterpart, Carlos Flores, found himself trapped in San Pedro Sula, an industrial city of
500,000 people, cut off from the capital by flooding.
both countries said they were having difficulties obtaining reliable death
affected zones. Normal communications have been severed, and many residents have fled to other
areas on their own, leading Juan Navarro, a spokesman for Aleman, to caution that "there is a lot of
anarchy" in the estimates being reported in local press accounts.
"We cannot yet
specify with certainty the magnitude of the disaster and the number of
said before declaring three days of national mourning Sunday night in remembrance of what he
would only estimate as "hundreds" of fatalities. "But I believe that since the earthquake of 1972, we
have not suffered so much loss of human life as the misfortune experienced in recent days." The
quake destroyed much of Managua and killed as many as 5,000 people.
winds of up to 180 mph at its peak, Mitch was by far the strongest storm
of the 1998
hurricane season. But the bulk of the damage has occurred as it diminished in recent days from a
rare Category 5 storm, the most severe on the Saffir-Simpson scale, to a tropical depression stalled
over the Gulf of Honduras.
For several days,
a strong front over the Gulf of Mexico prevented the storm from pushing
northward, thereby sparing Cancun and the Yucatan Peninsula, which had been directly in the
storm's original path. As a result, heavy rains have fallen ceaselessly for nearly a week not just in
Honduras and Nicaragua, but throughout Guatemala and El Salvador, both of which have also
declared states of national emergency, and in Belize.
In some parts
of Central America, rainfall exceeding two feet was recorded in a single
period. With rivers already overflowing in several nations, the National Hurricane Center here on
Sunday was predicting up to 10 more inches of rain for the northern half of Central America, which
was sure to worsen the crisis. A spokesman said Sunday night that the situation was too chaotic to
estimate rainfall for Monday, adding that the center expected the rains to ease considerably
capital of Honduras and home to nearly a million people, the raging waters
Choluteca River swept away entire neighborhoods over the weekend, as well as cars, trucks, trees,
power lines and livestock. More than 130 people were reported to have drowned, and as residents
fled or sought safety on roofs, police reported that looters were raiding stores and homes.
has been leveled," Mayor Cesar Castellanos said. "Blocks and blocks of
and poor neighborhoods, shops -- they have all been completely demolished."
Castellanos and three other people were reported to have been killed when
helicopter crashed during a flight to inspect damage and repair efforts.
a light plane, said by local officials in the province of Quetzaltenango
to be the
property of an American missionary group, also crashed in heavy rain, and a dozen passengers were
The lightly populated
Bay Islands, a favorite haunt of divers about 30 miles off the northern
Honduras, appear to have been especially hard hit. Over the weekend, a television crew flew over
the islands of Guanuja and Roatan, isolated from the mainland for nearly a week, and filmed scenes
of devastation: houses, hotels and palm trees flattened and boats strewn about like toys.
"The forces of
nature are hammering us in every inch of national territory," said the
commander of the
Honduran Armed Forces, Gen. Mario Hung Pacheco.
Pacheco, chief of the Honduran Air Force, said: "This is a catastrophe
measure. It's incredible. The entire nation is in danger."
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company