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Eta wreaks 'shocking' Central America devastation, dozens dead

Thursday, November 5th 2020, 9:00 pm - Eta is forecast to return to sea and regain momentum as a tropical storm, reaching Cuba and southern Florida this weekend.

By Gustavo Palencia and Sofia Menchu

TEGUCIGALPA/GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - The remnants of Hurricane Eta unleashed torrential rains and catastrophic flooding on Central America, with fatalities sharply up on Thursday as streets turned into rivers and dozens more were feared to be buried in their homes by mudslides.

More than 70 people were killed across the region of mostly poor countries nestled between Mexico and Colombia, and hundreds were stranded on rooftops or cut off by floods.

In Guatemala, the death toll shot up past 50 over the course of Thursday, according to President Alejandro Giammattei, who said mudslides around the town of San Cristobal Verapaz had swallowed about 25 homes.

"Right now, we're trying to get there on foot because there's no other way," said Giammattei, referring to flooded out roads near the town, located about 120 miles (193 km) north of the Guatemalan capital.

In neighboring Honduras, families waded through flooded streets of the northern city of San Pedro Sula, while cars sat almost submerged in parts of the central Guatemalan city of San Pedro Carcha, television footage and images posted on social media showed.

STORM-ETA2 People stand on the bridge that crosses the Masachapa river under the rain caused by Storm Eta in Masachapa, Nicaragua November 4, 2020.REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

Hundreds of people were left stranded on roofs in Honduras as frantic rescue efforts played out, which were credited with taking around 500 people to safety.

"We will not leave the area until we rescue the last person," Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez told local television, adding that rescue efforts led by police, soldiers and firefighters will continue overnight.

Damage and destruction had spread across most of Honduras and speedboats and helicopters would be sent to take people to safety in inaccessible areas, Hernandez said earlier in the day.

One of the fiercest storms to hit Central America in years, Eta struck Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane on Tuesday with winds of 150 miles per hour (241 kph) before weakening to a tropical depression as it moved inland and into neighboring Honduras.

By Thursday, authorities confirmed at least seven deaths in Honduras. Media in Nicaragua also reported two miners had died in a mudslide.

STORM-ETA A man recovers plastic barrels from a business affected by a flooding caused by rains from Storm Eta, in Toyos, Honduras November 4, 2020. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

Guatemala's disaster relief agency Conred had earlier said about 15 homes were likely covered by mudslides, possibly affecting around 75 people.

Giammattei had already declared a state of emergency in nearly half of the country's 22 departments.

In both Guatemala and Panama, several people have been reported missing as water levels continue to rise.

In southern Costa Rica, a landslide killed two people in a house, a Costa Rican woman and an American man, officials said. Meanwhile, five people, including three children, died in flooding in Panama's Chiriqui province, near the Costa Rica border, authorities said.

There was at least one silver lining in Honduras, where 60 fishermen who disappeared at sea on Tuesday returned after taking shelter on cays until they were rescued, said community leader Robin Morales.

Calling their survival a "miracle," Morales said a man among them presumed dead from a heart attack also made it back.

"Our friends are alive, thank God," he said.

STORM-ETA3 A bike is seen on a tree after Hurricane ETA swept through the Nicaraguan Caribbean coast in Masachapa, Nicaragua November 4, 2020. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

Across swaths of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica, high winds and heavy rain have damaged homes, roads and bridges, forcing thousands to take cover in shelters.

Eta was moving northwest over Honduras and Belize and headed toward the Caribbean, at eight miles per hour (13 kph) on Thursday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said. Heavy rains continued and the storm's top winds edged up to 35 mph (56 kph).

Eta is forecast to return to sea and regain momentum as a tropical storm, possibly reaching the Cayman Islands, Cuba and southern Florida in the coming days, the NHC said.

(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia, Sofia Menchu, Alvaro Murillo; Writing by Dave Graham and David Alire Garcia; Editing by Tom Brown and Stephen Coates)

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