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Salvadoran town devastated by landslides buries its dead

VERAPAZ, El Salvador — Tears streamed down Elsy Portillo's badly bruised face Monday as she walked behind coffins carrying her mother and only child in this town buried by a landslide, one in a series that killed at least 130 people in El Salvador.

Portillo's body was flung repeatedly against the walls as she fought to keep her 7-year-old son from being swept away in the powerful river of mud, boulders and floodwaters overtaking their home in the predawn hours Sunday.

The 40-year-old woman survived but said she lost everything she had lived for.

"My little angel was taken away," she said, sobbing, her right eye swollen shut. "My little angel was taken away."

Days of heavy rains unleashed flooding and landslides across this mountainous Central American country Sunday.

The country's congress voted Monday to declare a three-day period of national mourning starting today. It also declared a state of disaster, a measure that allows President Mauricio Funes to use government funds for relief and to accept international aid.

No place was harder hit than Verapaz, a poor, farming town of 7,000 on the slopes of the Chichontepec volcano, about 30 miles east of the capital, San Salvador.

Boulders, many weighing more than a ton, littered the cobblestone streets Monday. Cars and homes protruded from mounds of mud. Bloated dead cows lay on rooftops after being hurled into the air — attesting to the force of the deluge that turned the normally picturesque coffee-growing town into a disaster zone.

Soldiers and townspeople continued digging through rock and debris to search for the 60 people who remained missing Monday. Collapsed walls and downed power lines prevented heavy machinery from entering. Many used their bare hands.

Hopes of finding survivors dimmed with each passing hour.

Funes flew in to survey the damage. He urged federal lawmakers to approve millions of dollars in loans from the Inter-American Development Bank, saying some of the funds would be redirected for reconstruction.

"The images speak clearly," he said after stopping to talk to men shoveling more than 3 feet of mud from their homes.

Portillo was among 200 townspeople who spent the night at a church in the nearby town of San Isidro after losing their homes. Eight of the bodies, including those of her son and mother, were sent in coffins to the church as well.

While children slept on the floor, many of the adults passed the night praying and weeping over coffins lined up near the altar. Some would open them to see who was inside. One woman fainted.

Portillo said the heavy rain woke her up Sunday. When she saw the deluge coming toward her home, she woke her son and tried to get up to the roof.

But when she opened her door, they were swept away by the fast-moving current that filled her home. She lost her grip on her son when her body was slammed against one of the concrete walls.

"The current threw me about but I never lost consciousness," she said. "I swallowed so much mud."

Portillo said after everything calmed down, she found the bodies of her mother and son a few blocks away.

Mayor Jose Antonio Hernandez said rescuers found more bodies in Verapaz, raising the town's death toll to 16.

Interior Minister Humberto Centeno said 130 people were confirmed dead, 60 were missing and 13,680 were homeless. Officials initially said 134 had died.

Portillo's son, Francisco Alejandro Portillo, was the youngest victim found so far. Two girls, ages 13 and 15, and a woman who was 8 months pregnant were also killed.

Portillo's sister, Sonia Margarita, made it to her roof with her four children. They sat huddled together in the rain, helpless as friends and neighbors were carried away, screaming in the darkness.

Salvadoran town devastated by landslides buries its dead 11/09/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 9, 2009 10:45pm]
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