Salvadoran Town Hit by Landslide Buries Dead

By: Marcos Aleman - AP Writer
By: Marcos Aleman - AP Writer

Tears streamed down Elsy Portillo's badly bruised face Monday as she walked behind coffins carrying her mother and only child in this town buried by a landslide, one in a series that killed at least 130 people in El Salvador.

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 floodwaters overtaking their
home in the pre-dawn hours Sunday.

The 40-year-old woman survived but said she lost everything she
had lived for.

"My little angel was taken away," she said, sobbing, her right
eye swollen shut. "My little angel was taken away."

Days of heavy rains unleashed flooding and mudslides across this
mountainous Central American country Sunday.

The country's congress voted Monday to declare a 3-day period of
national mourning starting Tuesday. It also declared a state of
disaster, a measure that allows President Mauricio Funes to use
government funds for relief and to accept international aid.

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 U.S. Navy hurricane specialist at the
National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida. Ida weakened Monday as
it lost strength over the water on its way to a landfall on the
U.S. Gulf Coast.

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 (50 kilometers) east of the capital, San Salvador.

Boulders, many weighing more than a ton, littered the
cobblestone streets Monday. Cars and homes protruded from mounds of mud. Bloated 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 60 people who remained missing Monday.
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.

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.

"The images speak clearly," said Funes, after stopping to talk
to men shoveling more than a meter (3 feet) of mud from their
homes.

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.

"The current threw me about but I never lost consciousness,"
she said. "I swallowed so much mud."

Portillo said after everything calmed down, she found the bodies
of her mother and son a few blocks away.

Mayor Jose Antonio Hernandez said rescuers found six more bodies
in Verapaz, raising the town's death toll to 16.

Interior Minister Humberto Centeno said 130 people were
confirmed dead, 60 were missing and 13,680 were homeless. Officials
initially said 134 people had died.

Portillo's son, Francisco Alejandro Portillo, was the youngest
victim found so far. Two girls, ages 13 and 15, and a woman who was
eight months pregnant were also killed.

Portillo's sister Sonia Margarita made it to her roof with her
four children. They sat huddled together in the rain and felt
helpless as friends and neighbors were carried away, screaming in
the darkness.

"My children are traumatized," she said. "If we had moved off
of that roof, we would have died."


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