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Family Buries Four Victims of Flash Floods

September 15, 1996

GUAYAMA, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Under a brilliant, sunny sky, hundreds of townspeople bade an emotional farewell Saturday to four members of a family killed when Hurricane Hortense engulfed their canyon-bottom home in a violent flash flood.

Mourners filed through the Pedro Funeral Home to pay their respects to the dead and to the five members of the Gomez Rodriguez family who survived after a daring rescue Tuesday. The line stretched out onto the street.

Esteban Gomez Rodriguez, 50, and his wife, Genoveva, 44, were buried in the same grave at Guayama’s municipal cemetery. Nephew Miguel, 18, and daughter-in-law Luz Miriam Cruz, 25, were placed in nearby plots.

``It just tells me that my father was a very well-loved man,″ a shaking Wanda Garcia-Gomez, 33, of Miami said of the crowd that had come to mourn Esteban, a popular fruit juice vendor.

Twenty people died in Puerto Rico and five died in the Dominican Republic when Hortense’s unrelenting rains triggered flash flooding and devastating mudslides Tuesday. Damage surpassed $155 million in Puerto Rico alone.

Electricity was restored to 90 percent of households and businesses in Puerto Rico on Saturday, including San Juan, which was finally back on line, five days after the hurricane struck.

Hortense’s winds dropped to 75 mph as it sped northeastward and hit land on the eastern coast of Nova Scotia late Saturday. Rains ahead of the storm caused scattered power outages in Halifax.

Twenty-six Puerto Rican towns and cities were declared disaster areas, making residents eligible for federal emergency aid. U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena surveyed the damage Saturday.

In Guayama, residents remembered the Gomezes as a hard-working family who had lived in the single-story, pink-and-white house in the canyon community of Culebra for at least 12 years.

Richard Cruz, 35, and his four children _ Cassandra, 1; Christian, 2; Miriam, 5; and Richard Jr., 7 _ holed up in a closet for nine hours as the flood blasted through the home. Private citizens Miguel Ariel Rodriguez and Jose Luis de Leon saved the five by pulling them along a rope tossed across the torrent.

Richard’s wife, Miriam, and the other three victims had been swept away hours earlier. Their bodies were recovered as far as 10 miles downstream.

Neighbor Maria Cruz said Miriam was washed away while rushing her children into the closet.

``She was a lion, a great mother who died protecting her cubs,″ Ms. Cruz said. ``The community will protect Miriam’s children as she herself would have done.″

Esteban was well-known in town for selling fresh orange and grapefruit juice. His delivery trucks were fixtures on Guayama’s hilly streets.

``He was a nice guy. He was always at his work. He was always making that juice. The guy worked hard,″ said a family friend, Willie Ruiz.

A family photo showed a smiling Esteban and Genoveva, stirring a pot of beans, at a recent family beach picnic.

Relatives said they called for help repeatedly Tuesday, to no avail. Richard Cruz said he tried to call civil defense authorities and no one answered.

``What good did civil defense do? Nothing,″ said a Culebra neighbor, Carmen Vasquez. ``They came without equipment.″

Lt. Eliecer Colon, who was among the first officers on the scene, said that police initially couldn’t reach Culebra because a bridge was submerged in the river. Authorities also were busy with other rescues in Guayama, where the storm destroyed at least 35 homes, he said.

Cirilo Tirado Delgado, a district senator, is seeking a government investigation.

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