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Aid to Central America Increases

November 6, 1998

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) _ Aid workers struggle to reach survivors of Hurricane Mitch, who are in danger of dying from starvation and disease in the wake of the storm that officials estimate killed more than 10,000 people.

Foreign aid and pledges of assistance poured into Central America on Thursday, but damage to roads and bridges reduced the amount of supplies reaching hundreds of isolated communities to a trickle _ only as much as can be dropped from a helicopter, when the helicopters can get through.

In the Aguan River Valley in northern Honduras, flood waters have receded, leaving a carpet of mud over hundreds of acres. In many nearby villages, residents have gone days without potable water or food.

A 7-month-old baby died in the Aguan Valley village of Olvido after three days without food. Residents feared more children would die.

``The worst thing, the saddest thing, are the children. The children are suffering, even dying,″ said Olvido parish priest Cecilio Escobar Gallindo.

A score of cargo aircraft landed Thursday at the normally quiet Toncontin airport in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, delivering aid from Mexico, the United States, Japan and Argentina.

President Clinton requested a ``global relief effort″ to help Central America and boosted U.S. emergency aid to $70 million. Clinton is dispatching a delegation next week led by Tipper Gore, wife of Vice President Al Gore, to deliver some of the supplies destined for Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Mrs. Gore was to be in Central America on Tuesday and Wednesday, accompanied by Brian Atwood, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and several members of Congress. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton also added Nicaragua and Honduras to a trip she plans to the region beginning Nov. 16.

Mexico, meanwhile, announced that it will increase food aid to the region from 700,000 to 1.3 million tons, in addition to providing medicine, helicopters, cargo planes and soldiers for relief operations.

A Mexican military rescue squad pored over a 200-foot rock avalanche on the Choluteca River in Tegucigalpa with search dogs, looking for victims buried when dozens of homes disappeared a week ago. Neighbors heard screams that night, but residents said rescuers recovered no one Thursday.

``From here, we’ll continue searching down river,″ where dozens more remain missing, said Honduran army Major Freddy Diaz.

The Honduran government, citing better information from the ravaged countryside, lowered its confirmed death toll to 6,076 from an earlier estimate of 7,000. The number of missing also dropped from an estimated 11,000 to 4,621, according to Government Minister Delmer Urbizo.

``Until now, we have had a short amount of time and few resources to get reliable information,″ he explained. Some 569,000 Hondurans lost their homes, he said.

Neighboring Nicaragua, meanwhile, raised its estimated death toll to 4,000 from 2,400. The bodies of victims from a massive mudslide on the flanks of the Casitas Volcano have been turning up in fields and along rivers and shorelines, Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Aleman said. About half the nation’s deaths occurred in that mudslide.

``Fishermen in the area between Leon and Chinandega tell us that the stench along the ocean shore is unbearable,″ Aleman said in an interview with the Mexican television network Televisa.

Attention also has focused on the flood-ravaged region along the Nicaragua-Honduras border. Bad weather forced a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter trying to reach towns on Nicaragua’s northern border to turn back Thursday. Towns along the Rio Coco in that area reportedly were wiped out by flooding last week.

El Salvador reported 239 dead and Guatemala said 194 of its people had been killed. Six people died in southern Mexico and seven in Costa Rica.

After destroying scores of Central American communities last week, Mitch moved northwest and damaged mobile homes and buildings Thursday when it crossed southern Florida. At least one Florida death was blamed on the storm, a driver whose car slid off a highway during a downpour and hit a light pole near Fort Lauderdale.

Health workers began a vaccination campaign Thursday in crowded Honduran shelters and slums ravaged by Hurricane Mitch, and search operations for the missing continued across the country.

More than 6,500 people are listed as missing throughout the region. The United States committed 19 helicopters, two C-27 aircraft and one C-130 cargo plane to help beef up relief efforts. France said it was sending 250 rescue workers, along with construction materials.

The U.N. World Food Program announced it was diverting ships to rush their cargo of donated food to Central America and was sending food from warehouses at its base in Rome.

But mainly, it was Central Americans struggling to rescue, rebuild and salvage what they could.

Jose Vasquez hoisted a 100-pound sack of gravel onto his shoulders _ the same stuff that had destroyed his Tegucigalpa home _ and leaned forward for the staggering trek uphill.

Trying to salvage something from his personal disaster, Vasquez was earning $6 a day filling sacks of the gravel and delivering them to construction firms.

Never mind that his possessions lay somewhere deep below, or that a woman’s body had been found buried nearby. ``To move ahead, we have to do this,″ Vasquez, 37, explained. ``You have to make a living.″

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