Central America floods kill dozens as region sees sharp reversal of summer drought

Torrential downpours linked to tropical storms unleash deadly floods and landslides across Central America, which just a couple of months ago was facing one of the worst droughts in decades.

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Floods in the Nicaraguan city of León, one of the worst-hit cities in the country. Photo courtesy of La Prensa.

Floods have killed more than 50 people across Central America over the past week, after several days of torrential rain caused by tropical storms and weather systems. At least 24 people have been killed in Nicaragua, while the death toll in Guatemala currently stands at 19, just several months after the entire region was said to be on the brink of a humanitarian crisis due to a severe drought.

The rains have also claimed four victims in El Salvador and two in Honduras. Meanwhile, southern parts of Mexico have been hit by Tropical Storm Trudy, which formed over the Pacific Ocean before moving ashore, bringing torrential rains and gale-force winds, leading to the deaths of six more people.

Nicaragua has been the worst hit so far, with the death toll of 24 said to be likely to rise in the coming days. In one tragic instance, nine people were killed when a wall separating two neighbourhoods in the capital Managua collapsed. Other parts of the city have been evacuated over fears that they would be at risk from mudslides and flash floods, as rivers which just a few short months ago were running dry after months without significant rainfall now begin to burst their banks due to the persistent downpours. National authorities are said to be concerned about the highly saturated ground, which may not be able to take any more of the rain that is still forecast in the most affected areas over the next week.

Thousands of families have been affected across Nicaragua, with many of them evacuated and those who have stayed put having to deal with flooded and damaged homes. According to national daily La Prensa (link in Spanish), at the latest count more than 33,000 people had been affected, with some 5,000 people taking shelter in 20 temporary emergency centres across the country. Many rural communities, especially indigenous Miskito groups in the eastern Atlantic regions, have reportedly been cut off from the rest of the country.

Emergency workers in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua attend to the scene of a wall collapse that claimed the lives of nine people. Photo courtesy of AP via the BBC.

Some of the worst-hit parts of Nicaragua and El Salvador have been drenched at a time when they were still on high alert following the 7.3 magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of El Salvador last week. The combination of the heavy rains and any damage from the quake means that landslides are even more likely, and continue to pose a threat to what are some of the most densely populated parts of Central America.

In Guatemala, which bore the brunt of the summer drought that led to food shortages and a nationwide state of emergency, 19 people have lost their lives so far, while tens of thousands of people have been affected, according to a spokesperson for the National Disaster Committee (Conred). The organisation has also warned that as much as 64% of the country is in a situation where any more significant rainfall risks triggering floods and landslides. In Mexico, meanwhile, Tropical Storm Trudy made landfall in the southern Guerrero and Oaxaca states over the weekend of October 18th-19th, setting off more floods and landslides that claimed the lives of six people. Five of these were caused by a mudslide when a mountainside collapsed in Ometepec, a town in Guerrero which saw nearly 16 inches of rain in just 24 hours, according to weather.com.

Flooding in Guatemala City. The country has seen some of the worst of the flooding, with at least 19 people killed in recent days. Photo courtesy of Prensa Libre.

The storms come after a prolonged period of drought earlier this year, when months of minimal rainfall across a vast stretch of Central America led to crop failures and the decimation of livestock. By the end of August the situation had become so severe that Guatemala and Nicaragua were forced to call for international aid, and the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) warned that as many as 3 million people were facing a serious food crisis because of the impact of the water shortages on local agriculture, in a region where the majority of rural inhabitants are dependent on small-scale and subsistence farming.

While the rains will initially have brought some relief to parched farmland and empty rivers and reservoirs, the persistent rain and ensuing chaos of the past week have proven that extremes of weather at both ends of the scale do not merely cancel each other out, but have the potential to cause havoc within a short space of time.

The summer drought was partially blamed on El Niño and climate change, and while torrential rains are common during what is both Central America’s rainy season and the height of the hurricane season for the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific, the extremes of weather experienced by the region over the course of just a few months are a sign of what could come if climate change leads to more climatic extremes in the future, as many studies suggest.

Debris from a landslide in southern Mexico, where Tropical Storm Trudy caused the deaths of six people. Photo courtesy of Reuters.