Rain-heavy remnants of Hurricane Eta have flooded homes from Panama to Guatemala, as the death toll across Central America rose to at least 57 people and aid groups warned flooding and mudslides were creating a slow-moving humanitarian disaster.
The storm that hit Nicaragua as a mighty Category-4 hurricane on Tuesday had become more of a vast tropical rainstorm on Thursday, but it was advancing so slowly and dumping so much rain that much of Central America remained on high alert.
Forecasters said the now-tropical depression was expected to regather strength and head towards Cuba and possibly the Gulf of Mexico by early next week.
On Thursday afternoon, Guatemala President Alejandro Giammattei said a water-soaked mountainside in the central part of the country had slid down onto the town of San Cristobal Verapaz, burying homes and leaving at least 25 dead.
Two other slides in Huehuetenango had killed at least 12 more, he said. Earlier on Thursday, five others had been killed in smaller slides in Guatemala.
Guatemala’s death toll came on top of 13 people who died in Honduras and two in Nicaragua. Panamanian authorities reported eight missing.
Eta had sustained winds of 35mph (55km/h) and was moving north-northwest at eight mph (13km/h) Thursday.
In Guatemala, two children died when their home collapsed under heavy rains in the central department of Quiche, according to a statement by local firefighters. A third person also died in Quiche, but details were not immediately available. Giammattei confirmed a fourth death in a landslide in Chinautla on Wednesday night.
On Thursday, Giammattei said on local radio that 60 percent of the eastern city of Puerto Barrios was flooded and an additional 48 hours of rain were expected.
In Honduras, the National Police said six more bodies had been found, bringing that country’s toll to 13.
The bodies of two adults and two children were found after excavations in a mudslide that occurred Wednesday in the township of Gualala, and two boys aged eight and 11 died in another mudslide in the township of El Nispero.
Earlier, residents found the body of a girl buried in a landslide on Wednesday in mountains outside the north coast city of Tela. In the same area, a landslide buried a home with a mother and two children inside it, according to Honduras Fire Department spokesman Oscar Triminio.
He said there was also a two-year-old girl killed in Santa Barbara department when she was swept away by floodwaters.
Heavy rain was forecast to continue across Honduras through at least Thursday as Eta moves towards the northern city of San Pedro Sula.
Dozens of residents of a San Pedro Sula neighbourhood had to abandon their homes in the early hours of Thursday when water from the Chamelecon river reached their doorsteps.
Honduran officials earlier reported that a 12-year-old girl died in a mudslide and a 15-year-old boy drowned trying to cross a rain-swollen river.
Marvin Aparicio of Honduras’s emergency management agency said Wednesday that some 457 homes had been damaged, mostly by floodwaters. There were 41 communities cut off by washed-out roads.
Among those rescued were Karen Patricia Serrano, her husband and five children. Their home was flooded with waters from the Lancetilla river and they had been in a shelter in Tela since Monday.
“We lost everything,” the 32-year-old woman said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. I even lost my little animals,” she said, referring to chickens, cats and dogs.
At least eight people were reported missing after flooding and landslides in the Panama province of Chiriqui, which borders Costa Rica.
“The situation is worrisome, a lot of help is needed,” said Javier Pitti, mayor of Tierras Altas in Chiriqui. Landslides had closed many roads, including the main highway connecting the province to the rest of Panama.
The homes of more than 200 residents of the Ngabe Bugle autonomous Indigenous area were flooded.
The US National Hurricane Center forecast that parts of Nicaragua and Honduras could receive 380 to 635 millimetres (15 to 25 inches) of rain, with more possible in some isolated areas.
When what’s left of the storm wobbles back into the Caribbean it will regain some strength and become a tropical storm again, forecasts show.
Then, Eta is predicted to slowly move towards Cuba and Florida, or at least close enough to Florida for forecasters to warn of seven inches of rain for South Florida in the next five to seven days.
We lost everything. I don't know what we're going to do. I even lost my little animals
Next week, Eta could even move into the Gulf of Mexico.
“Whatever comes out [of Central America] is going to linger a while,” said Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.
“I’m not convinced we’re done with Eta.”