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Tuesday, November 3, 1998 Published at 07:17 GMT

World: Americas

El Salvador counts the cost

Some said they had to wait all day to be rescued by helicopter

By BBC Correspondent Mike Lanchin in San Salvador

In Central America's smallest country, El Salvador, people are just beginning to count the human and material costs of the passing of Tropical Storm Mitch, which wreaked havoc across the whole region.

More than 100 people are reported dead in El Salvador and another 30,000 left homeless, although the authorities admit that the complete figures of the damage will not be known for some time.

Tropical Storm Mitch may not have hit El Salvador as fiercely as neighbouring Honduras and Nicaragua, but the havoc caused by three days of intense rains and flooding has been no less dramatic. On the south-eastern coast where the River Lempa, the biggest in Central America, reaches the sea, some 4,000 peasant families spent Hallowe'en night watching helplessly as the water level rose to their doors and gushed into their primitive adobe houses.

Thanks to their experience in past years with flooding around the Lempa's estuary, most of the families were already beginning to move to higher grounds by the time the waters reached chest-level. Behind them they left their sparse belongings, farm animals and the precious crop of rice and corn that keeps them alive for the rest of the year.

Standing knee-deep in the mud that the subsiding waters have left behind, many of the inhabitants told me when I visited the area on Monday how they had swum for their lives, with their children mounted on their backs. Others said they had had to wait all day and all night for the airforce helicopters to evacuate them, clinging onto the roofs of their homes.

Fever warning

For now, these people are relatively safe and dry in eight refuges set up a few miles inland from their abandoned villages. They are receiving some supplies of food and clothing brought into the area by the Red Cross, as well as by church groups and non-governmental agencies. Medicine is also being handed out, but there is a real danger of an outbreak of dengue fever, especially among the hundreds of small children crammed into the temporary refuges.

No-one knows exactly how many of the residents of the Lempa estuary are yet unaccounted for, since some of the villages are still partially covered by muddy water and are inaccessible by land. Neither does anyone know when or how these subsistance farmers will be able to return to their homes and begin rebuilding their communities. In fact, as I left the area after my brief visit, the skies opened up, threatening once again to fill the River Lempa up to dangerous levels.

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