Rescuers dig after Central American storm kills 96

GUATEMALA CITY – Rescue crews battled to reach rain-sodden rural areas of Central America on Monday after Tropical Storm Agatha’s torrential rain burst riverbanks and triggered mudslides, killing at least 96 people.

The first named storm of the 2010 Pacific hurricane season, Agatha slammed into Guatemala on Saturday, dumping more than three feet (one metre) 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.

Several dozen people were still reported missing in Guatemala on Monday and as the rain abated, hundreds of families searched for loved ones and belongings.

"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 for safety.

More than 80,000 people were evacuated over the weekend as the storm buried homes under mud, swept away a highway bridge near Guatemala City and opened up sinkholes in the capital.

"It’s been difficult to reach people, but we today we should be able to get to these isolated places," said David de Leon, a spokesman for Guatemala’s emergency services.

President Alvaro Colom said on Sunday that at least 83 people had died in Guatemala, and officials said more victims would likely be found. Nine people were killed in El Salvador and four in Honduras, including a woman who was electrocuted as she was helped from her flooded home.

Agatha dissipated as it crossed Guatemala but emergency workers warned residents to expect heavy rain for several more days and said further mudslides were possible.

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 farms near Guatemala City have reported damage from an eruption last week of the Pacaya volcano, which spurted small rocks and ash, but Agatha felled telephone lines, making it hard to assess the extent of storm damage to the crop.

Gerardo de Leon, commercial manager of a group of 120 farms around the country, 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 complicates 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 Pacaya blocking drains.

Last Thursday’s eruption forced the closure of Guatemala City’s international airport. The airport has reopened for aid flights but will remain closed to commercial flights until Tuesday, aviation officials said.

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