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'National tragedy' in Guatemala as landslides kill dozens

Handout picture released by the Guatemalan Secretariat for the Reduction of Disasters (CONRED), of an aerial vier of the landslide in which ten people were killed on September 4, 2010 on the Interamericana road, Tecpan municipality, Chimaltenango, Guatemala. Twenty other people were injured. Photo courtesy AFP.

Southern Australia hit by worst floods in 10 years
Sydney (AFP) Sept 5, 2010 - Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard urged people to prepare for evacuation as river levels rose in the country's flooded south on Sunday, threatening hundreds more homes. Soldiers were called in and a natural disaster declared in Victoria state after intense rain pushed rivers to breaking point, flooding at least 250 homes and isolating entire towns, emergency officials said. Scores of homes were under water and tens of thousands of people without power after drenching rains produced the worst flooding in more than a decade. "The storms have caused extensive damage to property, forcing many residents to leave their homes. Thousands of others are without power," Gillard said. "In some areas flood waters will continue to rise so residents should continue to monitor the local forecasts and be prepared to evacuate if necessary," she added.

State Premier John Brumby said the army would help sand-bag the worst affected areas and assist with evacuations, warning that some rivers would not reach their peak for a number of days and the worst was yet to come. "The real issue now is the next 36 to 48 hours... those floodwaters will continue to increase and continue to move," said Brumby. "We expect the number of houses (flooded) to increase ... tonight and tomorrow so there could be hundreds more that are affected," he added. Some areas had received more than 200 millimetres (eight inches) of rain and the State Emergency Service (SES) said it was the region's worst flooding since the 1990s.

Hundreds of people slept on classroom floors after being evacuated from their homes and the SES said it had received more than 2,000 calls since midnight Saturday. About 40,000 homes were without power and the sewage system in some towns had also been overloaded, spilling effluent into the surging waters. Skiers were stranded at mountaintop resorts overnight as the wild weather triggered landslides. Officials used a new SMS and telephone warning system, developed in response to last year's Black Saturday firestorm, which killed 173 people and razed entire towns in the state. The Bureau of Meteorology cancelled its severe weather warning as rains eased but said flood warnings remained in place for several areas.
by Staff Writers
Guatemala City (AFP) Sept 5, 2010
Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom declared a "national tragedy" on Sunday after landslides killed at least 36 people and left rescuers digging in the mud for dozens still missing.

Colom declared a state of emergency as fears grew the eventual toll from scores of landslides across the country set off by weeks of torrential rain could be far higher.

"It's a national tragedy," Colom said as he visited a site where up to 40 people were feared to have been buried alive in a mudslide.

"This weekend alone we have seen damage comparable to what we experienced with Agatha," he said, referring to a tropical storm in May that killed 165 Guatemalans and left thousands homeless.

Officials said 40,000 people had lost their homes and another 11,686 had been evacuated.

"Top priority at present is dealing with this emergency," Colom said as he toured the devastation and put the cost of the damage, in one of the poorest countries in the Americas, at up to 500 million dollars.

Rescuers on Sunday dug nine bodies out of a 300-meter (1,000-foot) deep ravine off the main Pan-American Highway, west of the capital Guatemala City.

Fire service spokesman Cecilio Chacaj told AFP some 40 people had been buried in mud there even as they tried to help the occupants of five vehicles and a bus swept into the abyss by a previous landslide.

Ten people were killed in a separate incident on Saturday when a second bus on the main highway was buried near the town of Chimaltenango. Rescuers managed to unearth 20 survivors.

A landslide also buried a family of four inside their house in the western region of Quetzaltenango, while 13 more people were killed in separate incidents around the country.

In Nahuala municipality, rescuers in bright orange uniforms used shovels, hoes and their hands to unearth the corpses of victims. Among the dead was Manuel Sohon, whose uncle Manuel Ajtzalam wept as he identified him.

Guatemala's National Coordination for Disaster Reduction listed almost 200 landslides, wall collapses and mudslides across the country.

Three regions in the country's south, Escuintla, Retalhuleu and Suchitepequez, were placed on red alert.

With more heavy rain forecast, authorities have closed part of the Pan-American Highway.

"This section of the road has been declared impassable," Communications, Infrastructure and Housing Minister Guillermo Castillo told reporters. "It will not reopen until we are sure a similar tragedy will not occur again.

Colom also ordered rescue workers to halt operations if heavy rains passed through the area again.

He warned he had little funds left to cope with the disaster as the country was still struggling to recover from the killer storm Agatha in May.

Central America has been lashed by an unusually fierce rainy season this year. The recent bad weather has killed 55 people in Honduras, at least 40 in Nicaragua, nine in El Salvador and three in Costa Rica.

Worryingly, the downpours have come ahead of what is traditionally the worst part of the rainy season, which lasts until October 30.

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