Verapaz: Mud and boulders loosened by heavy rains swept down a volcano and partly buried a small town Sunday, swallowing up homes as flooding and landslides across El Salvador killed at least 124 people, authorities said.
Hundreds of soldiers, police and residents dug through rock and debris in Verapaz looking for another 60 people missing from the mudslide, which struck before dawn Sunday while residents were still in their beds.
Matias Mendoza, 26, was at home with his wife Claudia and their year-old son, Franklin, when the earth began moving.
"It was about two in the morning when the rain started coming down harder, and the earth started shaking," Mendoza recalled. "I warned my wife and grabbed my son, and all of a sudden we heard a sound. The next thing I knew I was lying among parts of the walls of my house."
"A few minutes later, I found my wife and my son in the middle of the rubble, and, thank God, we`re alive," said Mendoza, who suffered cuts on his check that emergency workers stitched up.
Almost 7,000 people saw their homes damaged by landslides or cut off by floodwaters following three days of downpours from a low-pressure system indirectly related to Hurricane Ida, which brushed Mexico`s Cancun resort on Sunday before steaming into the Gulf of Mexico.
President Mauricio Funes declared a national emergency and said he would work with the United Nations to evaluate the extent of the damage.
"The images that we have seen today are of a devastated country," Funes said. He called the damages incalculable.
El Salvador`s Civil Protection agency raised the death toll to 124 late Sunday, with another 60 people missing. It didn`t break down the deaths by location, but under the previous toll of 94, officials had listed 61 deaths in San Salvador, 23 in San Vicente province, including 10 in the town of Verapaz, and the remaining fatalities spread across the country. Red Cross spokesman Carlos Lopez Mendoza said that 60 people were missing in Verapaz.
Some of the worst damage was in Verapaz, where mudslides covered cars and boulders two yards (meters) wide blocked streets.
The rain loosened a flow of mud and rocks that descended from the nearby Chichontepec volcano and buried homes and streets in Verapaz, a town of about 3,000 located 30 miles (50 kms) east of San Salvador, the capital.
"It was terrible. The rocks came down on top of the houses and split them in two, and split the pavement," recalled Manuel Melendez, 61, who lived a few doors down from Mendoza. Both their homes were destroyed Sunday morning.
"I heard people screaming all around," Melendez said.
Amid a persistent drizzle, rescuers dug frantically for survivors with shovels and even their bare hands. But the search was made difficult by collapsed walls, boulders and downed power lines that blocked heavy machinery.
"What happened in Verapaz was something terrible," said Interior Minister Humberto Centeno, who flew over the city Sunday to survey the damage. "It is a real tragedy there."
San Vicente Gov. Manuel Castellanos said workers were struggling to clear roadways and power and water service had been knocked out. At least 300 houses were flooded when a river in Verapaz overflowed its banks, Lopez Mendoza said.
In San Salvador, Lopez Mendoza said the toll included a family of four — two adults and two children — who were killed when a mudslide buried their home Sunday morning.
Hurricane Ida`s presence in the western Caribbean may have played a role in drawing a Pacific low-pressure system toward El Salvador, causing the rains, said Dave Roberts, a Navy hurricane specialist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
He added, however, that "if there were deaths associated with this rainfall amount in El Salvador, I would not link it to Ida."