VERAPAZ, El Salvador — Mud and boulders loosened by heavy rains swept down a volcano and partly buried a small town Sunday, swallowing up homes as flooding and landslides across El Salvador killed at least 91 people, authorities said.
Hundreds of soldiers, police and residents dug through rock and debris looking for another 60 missing from the mudslide, which struck before dawn Sunday while people were still in their beds.
Matias Mendoza, 26, was at home with his wife Claudia and their year-old son, Franklin, when the earth began moving.
“It was about two in the morning when the rain started coming down harder, and the earth started shaking,” Mendoza recalled. “I warned my wife and grabbed my son, and all of a sudden we heard a sound. The next thing I knew I was lying among parts of the walls of my house.”
“A few minutes later, I found my wife and my son in the middle of the rubble, and, thank God, we’re alive,” said Mendoza, who suffered cuts on his check that emergency workers stitched up.
Almost 7,000 people saw their homes damaged by landslides or cut off by floodwaters following three days of downpours from a low-pressure system indirectly related to Hurricane Ida, which brushed Mexico’s Cancun resort on Sunday before steaming into the Gulf of Mexico.
President Mauricio Funes declared a national emergency and said that he would work with the United Nations to evaluate the extent of the damage.
“The images that we have seen today are of a devastated country,” Funes said. “The damages are for the moment incalculable.”
Some of the worst damage was in the town of Verapaz, where mudslides covered cars and boulders two yards (meters) wide blocked streets.
The rain loosened a flow of mud and rocks that descended from the nearby Chichontepec volcano and buried homes and streets in Verapaz, a town of about 3,000 located 30 miles (50 kms) east of San Salvador, the capital.
“It was terrible. The rocks came down on top of the houses and split them in two, and split the pavement,” recalled Manuel Melendez, 61, who lived a few doors down from Mendoza. Both their homes were destroyed Sunday morning.
“I heard people screaming all around,” Melendez said.
There were 10 confirmed dead and about 60 missing in Verapaz, said Red Cross spokesman Carlos Lopez Mendoza said.
Amid a persistent drizzle, rescuers dug frantically for survivors with shovels and even their bare hands. But the search was made difficult by collapsed walls, boulders and downed power lines that blocked heavy machinery.
“What happened in Verapaz was something terrible,” said Interior Minister Humberto Centeno, who flew over the city Sunday to survey the damage. “It is a real tragedy there.”
At least 13 other people were killed in San Vicente province, where Verapaz is located.
Provincial Gov. Manuel Castellanos said workers were struggling to clear roadways and power and water service had been knocked out, and at least 300 houses were flooded after a river in Verapaz overflowed its banks, Lopez Mendoza said.
In San Salvador, authorities reported 61 dead. Lopez Mendoza said the toll included a family of four — two adults and two children — who were killed when a mudslide buried their home Sunday morning.
The remaining victims were buried by slides or carried away by raging rivers in other parts of the country, Vice Interior Minister Ernesto Zelayandia told The Associated Press.
The days of rain in El Salvador’s mountains were quickly funneled down into populated valleys.
Hurricane Ida’s presence in the western Caribbean may have played a role in drawing a Pacific low-pressure system toward El Salvador, causing the rains, said Dave Roberts, a Navy hurricane specialist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
He added, however, that “if there were deaths associated with this rainfall amount in El Salvador, I would not link it to Ida.”