SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras – When the remnants of Hurricane Eta returned over Caribbean waters, governments in Central America worked to count the displaced and dead and to recover bodies from landslides and floods that claimed dozens of lives from Guatemala to Panama.
It will be days before the true Eta toll is known. The heavy rains, which had already strangled economies from the COVID-19 pandemic, took away the shortcomings of governments that couldn’t help their citizens from those who had little.
In Guatemala, an army brigade reached a massive landslide in the central mountains on Friday morning, where an estimated 150 houses were buried on Thursday. No bodies were recovered immediately, but more than 100 people were believed to be missing.
Speaking at a press conference, President Alejandro Giammattei said he believed there were at least 100 dead in the area, San Cristobal Verapaz, but noted the number has not been confirmed.
“The panorama is complicated in this area,” he said, noting that the rescuers had difficulty accessing the site.
A week of heavy rain from the storm ruined crops, washed away bridges and flooded homes across Central America. Its slow, meandering journey north through Honduras pushed rivers over their banks and into neighborhoods where families were forced onto roofs waiting to be rescued.
Francisco Argeñal, chief meteorologist at the Center for Atmospheric, Oceanographic and Seismic Studies, said some areas had fallen as much as 8 inches of rain in just two days.
The death toll in Honduras rose to at least 21 people on Friday.
“In the coming hours, to our regret, we will see Dante-like scenes of people found dead,” said Marvin Aparicio, an official with the Honduran Emergency Management Agency.
The forecast shows Eta will intensify into a tropical storm late Friday before approaching the Cayman Islands on Saturday and crossing Cuba on Sunday. From there it could reach Florida or eventually head towards the US Gulf Coast, though the long-term path remained uncertain.
“Whatever comes out will linger for a while,” said Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher at Colorado State University. “I’m not convinced we’re done with Eta.”