Estimated 7,000 dead in mudslides and floods

MORE THAN 7,000 people, mostly farmers and their families, may have died in Central America in floods and mudslides caused by Hurricane Mitch, officials said yesterday. One official spoke of 5,000 feared dead in Honduras alone, added to at least 2,000 killed in neighbouring Nicaragua.

Most of the victims died at the start of the weekend, after the powerful hurricane slowed into a tropical storm and dumped several feet of rain on the isthmus. But severed roads and communications in already remote areas meant the true extent of the tragedy was becoming clear only last night.

Although the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa, was mostly under floodwater and without power or communications, Hondurans had no idea of their rural country people's fate until those with battery-operated radios heard officials of the National Emergency Council declare yesterday that 5,000 Hondurans were feared dead.

"Officially, we have 362 dead and 357 missing," said Lieutenant-Colonel Saul Carrillo of the Honduran Civil Defence Commission. "But really the number of deaths could top 5,000. Communications are cut. Many people may have been swept away by floods or buried by rubble."

The Honduran President, Carlos Flores, announced he was suspending constitutional liberties to combat looting. "There are corpses everywhere, victims of landslides or of the waters," he said in a nationally broadcast speech.

"The most conservative calculations of the dead are in the thousands, not in the hundreds. I ask the international community for human solidarity. The floods and landslides erased from the map many villages and households as well as whole neighbourhoods of cities. We have a panorama of death, desolation and ruin throughout the national territory."

The President said Honduras could take decades to recover after flooding and mudslides that wiped out as much as 70 per cent of crops. Agriculture accounts for about half of the country's annual economic output of $3bn (pounds 1.8bn).

"In agriculture, we have lost 70 per cent of our main products, both for export and domestic consumption." he said.

Others described near apocalyptic damage to the country of 5.5 million. In Tegucigalpa, almost one-third of all homes were damaged or destroyed. Water mains, prisons, hospitals and government ministries suffered heavy damage. As panic grew in the city over basic food supplies, hundreds were arrested for looting.

The Honduran and Nicaraguan governments appealed urgently for international aid. "Honduras is chaos," said one local journalist, Gustavo Palencia. "The infrastructure is gone. There is no drinking water. If we don't get international aid, many more will succumb to hunger or disease."

Tegucigalpa's mayor, Cesar Castellanos, was among those killed. He had gone out to check on damage and assist the rescue effort when his helicopter crashed in a rainstorm.

In Nicaragua, where the right-wing government has dismantled the armed forces of the Sandinista regime, the authorities said they had only five military helicopters and needed more to get to isolated stricken zones.

Rescuers said the confirmed death toll was at least 1,300 but that 1,500 more were missing. They feared the missing were buried in a deep river of mud. The victims were caught unawares as rainwater filled the crater of the Casita volcano before overflowing and surging down through the villages. Survivors said the mountain "seemed to explode" although there was no volcanic eruption.

Hundreds were swept downstream by the avalanche of mud and then entombed. "We may never know how many died," said Nicaragua's Vice-President, Enrique Bolanos. Red Cross workers described seeing bodies protruding from mud.

Officials said that the cost to Nicaragua could top $1.8bn in annual economic output.

Some of the world's previous worst natural disasters include an earthquake in Tang-Shan, in China, which killed 242,000 in 1976, a landslide in Peru in 1970 which killed 17,500, and a tsunami in Morocco in 1960 which killed 12,000 people. Floods in China in the Thirties killed more than three million.

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