Searchers in Guatemala are looking for an estimated 100 people believed buried by a landslide as the remnants of Hurricane Eta strengthened on the way to Cuba.
Eta is forecast to become a tropical storm again on Saturday as it moves over the Caribbean Sea, and the US National Hurricane Centre issued tropical storm watches for the north-western Bahamas, southern Florida and the Florida Keys.
The centre of Eta is expected to approach the Cayman Islands on Saturday, come near on Cuba over Saturday night and Sunday, and approach the Florida Keys or south Florida late on Sunday.
Back in Central America, which Eta reached as a Category 4 hurricane on Tuesday before weakening into a tropical depression, authorities from Panama to Mexico are still surveying damage from flooding and landslides following days of torrential rains.
The death toll is in the dozens and expected to rise.
On Friday, search teams in Guatemalan pulled the first bodies from a landslide in San Cristobal Verapaz.
Teams first had to overcome multiple landslides and deep mud just to reach the site where officials have estimated some 150 homes were devastated.
In neighboring Honduras, 68-year-old Maria Elena Mejia Guadron died when the brown waters of the Chamelecon river poured into San Pedro Sula’s Planeta area before dawn Thursday.
Mirian Esperanza Najera Mejia had fled her home in the dark with her two children and Mejia, her mother. But while she held tight to her children, the current swept away Mejia.
Najera continued searching desperately for her mother on Friday morning. But Mejia’s body was recovered later and taken to the morgue where her relatives identified her.
In southern Mexico, across the border from Guatemala, 19 people died as heavy rains attributed to Eta caused mudslides and swelled streams and rivers, according to officials.
The worst incident in Mexico occurred in the mountain township of Chenalho, where 10 people were swept away by a rain-swollen stream. Their bodies were later found downstream.
Mexico’s National Meteorological Service said Eta’s “broad circulation is causing intense to torrential rains on the Yucatan peninsula and in south-eastern Mexico”.
But the massive slide in Guatemala’s central mountains threatened to double Central America’s reported death toll in one remote community.
Late Friday, an army spokesman said soldiers and community members had recovered the first three bodies. Hundreds of tonnes of mud, rock and debris entombed others.
Rescue teams struggled for hours to reach the site from two different approaches. Smaller landslides blocked highways and decimated the dirt road leading to the community of Queja at the base of the slide.
#Eta is currently forecast to approach southern Florida later this weekend as a Tropical Storm. Heavy Rain 5-10 inches with isolated areas up to 15 inches will be possible across southern Florida. pic.twitter.com/laI0cuQAPt— National Weather Service (@NWS) November 7, 2020
The indigenous community of about 1,200 residents consisted of simple homes of wood and tin roofs clinging to the mountainside.
Tropical Depression Eta was centred 275 miles west-southwest of Grand Cayman late on Friday. It was moving north-east at 12mph and had maximum sustained winds of 35mph.
Hurricane Eta’s arrival in north-east Nicaragua followed days of drenching rain as it crawled toward shore.
Its slow, meandering path north through Honduras pushed rivers over their banks and pouring into areas where families were forced onto rooftops to wait for rescue.
The Honduran government estimates more than 1.6 million have been affected. It said rescues were under way in San Pedro Sula and La Lima, but resources are limited.
The US state department said four US helicopters from the Soto Cano Air Base near Tegucigalpa had flown to San Pedro Sula to participate in rescue operations.
US helicopters are also assisting in Panama where authorities confirmed five deaths in the western province of Chiriqui, which borders Costa Rica.