(CNN) -- As offers of international aid poured in, officials worked
desperately to prevent starvation and the spread of disease in Central
America, where Hurricane Mitch left an estimated 9,000 people dead and
wiped out homes and infrastructure.
As many as 13,000 people, mostly in Honduras and Nicaragua, were still
unaccounted for Wednesday in remote areas beaten by five days of
relentless rain from one of the century's strongest storms.
The disaster has set back development in Central America by 20 years, the
United Nation's World Food Program said Wednesday.
The Rome-based WFP said it was delivering food to Nicaragua, Honduras,
El Salvador and Guatemala, the four countries worst hit by the storm.
"The floods have taken everything with them" in some areas, said Rosa
Antolin, the WFP's senior liaison officer for Latin America. "There are no
crops to harvest, few wild foods to forage for and no animals for slaughter,"
"The destruction is huge," Antolin said. "In just one day the region has
set back 20 years."
Mexico launched one of the biggest airlifts in its history, and Europe
announced it had approved $8 million in humanitarian aid, adding to $3.5
million already given by the United States.
The U.S. military has provided about 600 personnel as well as 19
helicopters and three transport planes to aid in relief efforts in Honduras and
Relatives in U.S. pack up donations
Volunteers in the Honduran and Nicaraguan communities of South Florida
worked frantically to pack up donations of food, water and clothes. Many
have worked nonstop since the hurricane struck their former homelands.
Fanny Quintero worried about her relatives in Chinandega, Nicaragua, after
she saw pictures of mile after mile of mud, water and bodies.
"I don't know if they are alive or they are hanging off a tree or swimming
river," Quintero said.
The aid was unlikely to be enough due to the number of victims spread
across countries where most roads and bridges were damaged or
destroyed by the storm.
Danger of cholera, malaria
Health officials warned of the threat of cholera outbreaks posed by
pools of stagnant water littered with rotting bodies. Malaria and
dengue fever were also dangers as mosquitoes multiplied in the floodwaters.
Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Aleman called the disaster a more significant
tragedy than the country's 1972 earthquake, which killed at least 10,000
"I think this tragedy is of greater consequence than what happened in 1972,"
he told a news conference. The earthquake hit mainly the capital, while the
floods devastated nearly half the country's territory.
In Honduras, its fragile economy and cash crops almost totally ruined,
officials said they had counted 5,273 dead and 11,085 missing. They
estimated the death toll would reach over 7,000.
Another 1,452 people have been confirmed dead in neighboring Nicaragua,
where officials denied radio reports of another 1,000 possible dead in rural
northern mountains. There were 239 dead in El Salvador and 186 in
Woman survives six days at sea
A Honduran woman who survived six days at sea after being swept
away by the storm provided a rare piece of good news for the
devastated region, one of the world's poorest.
The unidentified woman, clinging to debris in the Caribbean and drifting
in and out of consciousness, was picked up by a British Navy ship
Tuesday. Her husband and three children were also swept out to sea,
but their fates were unknown.
"The capacity to survive in those conditions is absolutely remarkable,"
spokesman aboard HMS Sheffield told the BBC.
Mexico urges massive relief effort
Mexico, responding to appeals for help, said it sent 12 military aircraft,
including two Boeing 727s and five Hercules C-130s, and 28 helicopters in
order to ferry some 1,260 tons of food and medicine in coming weeks.
Two Mexican Cabinet ministers, Social Development Secretary Esteban
Moctezuma and Health Secretary Ramon de la Fuente, flew to the area to
oversee relief efforts.
Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo telephoned President Bill Clinton
Tuesday to urge the U.S. leader to assemble a massive multinational relief
effort to "avoid the greatest human and social tragedy in Central American
history," Zedillo's office said in a statement.
Volcano may be declared 'national cemetery'
Nicaragua kept a close eye on an erupting volcano, which added to its
misery from Mitch. The Cerro Negro volcano was spewing lava, hot gas
and flaming rocks just 20 miles from the site where as many as 2,000 people
were believed to have been buried in an avalanche of mud triggered by
Mitch's rains on the neighboring Casita volcano.
Several hundred bodies had been pulled from the mud around the volcano,
but Aleman said the government would ask families of the victims if they
wanted the rescue stopped and the area declared a "national cemetery"
Mourning relatives across the region buried loved ones.
"I wanted to go before them," a tearful 81-year-old Carmencita Pascual
Tuesday during the burial of her two granddaughters Elva, 5, and Maria
Mux, 7, killed by trees sent crashing down on their home in Guatemala by
Mitch on Sunday.
After dissipating for a few days, Mitch had recharged and tacked into the
Gulf of Mexico, upgraded to a tropical storm again and headed slowly
toward Florida. The storm was not expected to gain any more strength,
Mitch was the fourth most powerful Atlantic hurricane this century when
roared out of the Caribbean last week. It lingered off the Honduran coast for
several days, dumping up to two feet of rain each day.
Correspondent Pat Neal and Reuters contributed to this report.