El Salvador town begins its grim task
Residents bury landslide victims, look for survivors
VERAPAZ, El Salvador - Tears streamed down Elsy Portillo’s badly bruised face as she walked yesterday behind coffins carrying her mother and only child in this town buried by a massive landslide, one of a series that killed at least 130 people nationwide.
Portillo’s body was flung repeatedly against the walls as she fought to keep her 7-year-old son from being swept away in the powerful river of mud, boulders, and flood waters overtaking their home in the predawn hours Sunday.
The 40-year-old woman survived but said she lost everything she had lived for.
Days of heavy rains unleashed massive flooding and mudslides across the mountainous Central American country Sunday.
Hurricane Ida’s presence in the western Caribbean late last week may have played a role in drawing the rain-packed, Pacific low-pressure system toward El Salvador on the other side of Central America, said Dave Roberts, a Navy hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
No place was harder hit than Verapaz, a poor farming town of 7,000 people on the slopes of the Chichontepec volcano, about 30 miles east of the capital, San Salvador.
Boulders, many weighing more than a ton, littered the cobblestone streets yesterday. Cars and homes protruded from the mounds of mud. Dead cows lay on rooftops after being hurled into the air - attesting to the force of the deluge that turned the normally picturesque coffee-growing town into a disaster zone.
Soldiers and townspeople continued digging through rock and debris to search for the 47 people who remained missing yesterday. Collapsed walls and downed power lines prevented heavy machinery from entering. Many used their bare hands.
Hopes of finding survivors dimmed with each passing hour.
President Mauricio Funes flew in to survey the damage. He urged federal lawmakers to approve millions of dollars in loans from the Inter-American Development Bank, saying some of the funds would be redirected for reconstruction.
Portillo was among 200 townspeople who spent the night at a church in the nearby town of San Isidro after losing their homes. Eight of the bodies, including those of her son and mother, were sent in coffins to the church as well.
While children slept on the floor, many of the adults passed the night praying and weeping over coffins lined up near the altar. Some would open them to see who was inside. One woman fainted. Small candles were lit and stuck to the coffins.
Portillo said the heavy rain woke her up Sunday. When she saw the deluge coming toward her home, she woke up her son and tried to get them up to the roof. But when she opened her door, they were swept away by the fast-moving current that filled her home. She lost her grip on her son when her body was slammed against one of the cement walls.