"We have been through disaster zones, including a fly-over of the area of Verapaz [in San Vicente]," Centeno said. "It is a real tragedy there."

Torrent of mud

Officials reported a raging torrent of mud, rocks and tree trunks ripping through a section of Verapaz, burying houses and cars.

About one dozen bodies were pulled from the devastation and taken to a local chapel where they covered with white sheets as they awaited identification by relatives.

In Tepetitan, landslides and overflowing rivers carried away about 30 houses, authorities said. Some residents had agreed to leave the area, but a number "refused to leave their homes," according to Ana Jovel, the mayor.

Marcela Mayen, a journalist with Channel 6 El Salvador, told Al Jazeera: "The problem here is that there are many rivers across the whole country and these rivers are just overflowing affecting all those who live alongside them.

"The impact has been felt in about 60 per cent of the country."

She said that the government was considering declaring a "red" alert, the highest state of emergency in the country.

News of the deaths came as the storm gathered strength off the coast of the Mexican resort city of Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula on Sunday.

The Mexican government urged people to avoid unnecessary travel in the area and imposed restrictions on coastal shipping.

Hurricane watch

Weather forecasters in the US predicted the storm would head towards the US, where the authorities have issued a hurricane watch for the US Gulf Coast.

"A hurricane watch is in effect from Grand Isle, Louisiana to the Mississippi/Alabama border. This watch does not include the city of New Orleans [Louisiana]," a statement from the US National Hurricane Centre said.

"A hurricane watch means that hurricane conditions are possible within the watch area ... generally within 36 hours."

Some energy companies in the Gulf of Mexico have begun evacuating workers from offshore platforms, but so far oil and gas outputhad not been affected.

The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, the only terminal in the US capable of handling the largest tankers, said it would stop unloading ships due to stormy seas.

Forecasters declared Ida a hurricane on Thursday as it passed off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, bringing heavy rains and destroying homes.

The rains caused thousands of people to seek shelter out of the storm's path.

The storm weakened into a tropical storm before reaching hurricane status again late on Saturday with sustained winds of near 145kph, US forecasters said.