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Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

13 October 2005

Rains, flooding and mudslides had left hundreds and possibly thousands of people dead, and close to half a million people homeless, from southern Mexico to El Salvador, the UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean said at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon.

Nils Kastberg, briefing on the relief efforts in Central America, said that whole areas remained as yet inaccessible as many bridges and roads had been destroyed. In Guatemala, an estimated 137,000 had been displaced, a similar number in southern Mexico, and about 73,000 in El Salvador, with smaller numbers in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras. Of the 500,000 persons in shelters, one third of them were under the age of 18.

On 7 October, the United Nations had launched an $8 million flash appeal for El Salvador, of which so far it had received $1 million, and a $22 million flash appeal for Guatemala, of which it had already received close to $2.5 million. United Nations teams were on the ground and coordinating the response. Food aid and assistance with shelters was given. Also, a significant number of schools had been destroyed, estimates were from 1,100 to 1,200. Reconstruction efforts would have to come later. The local authorities were taking a very proactive stance in support of the response.

Another two months of anticipated rains was going to further complicate matters and donations had been received to stock relief supplies accordingly. He was very worried about what might happen in some places. In some areas, bridges and roads had been destroyed so evacuation as an element of preparedness was not an option. Nevertheless, there was a spirit of solidarity among people.

In Guatemala, where, in some cases, entire villages had been buried in mud, there was a proposal to convert them into “campos santos” -- holy burial grounds -- because there was no way there could be survivors. “It is a tragedy that is affecting, in particular, indigenous communities, the poorest of the poor”, he said. He later added, in response to a question about respect for the burial rituals of indigenous peoples, that the decisions were being made in consultation with local indigenous leaders, and that the decisions might be revisited later when weather conditions permitted.

In response to a question on assessment of the situation in southern Mexico, and specifically on the pledge of the authorities to rebuild the infrastructure and restore lost property, Mr. Kastberg said it was a matter of how quickly it could be done given how vast the damage was there. “We appreciate enormously the fact that the Government is making a commitment, both through its programme ‘Opportunidades’ and through other internal reallocations, to ensure that as many as possible of the homeless families are helped”, he said. The United Nations was interested in providing school support to those homeless children to give them some sense of normalcy.

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For information media • not an official record

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