Guatemala searches, Eta regains storm status, heads to Cuba

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Members of search and recovery teams search for survivors in the debris of a massive, rain-fueled landslide in the village of Queja, in Guatemala, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Eta. (Esteban Biba/Pool Photo via AP)

PURULHA – Searchers in Guatemala dug through mud and debris looking for an estimated 100 people believed buried by a massive, rain-fueled landslide, as Tropical Storm Eta continued to gain strength Saturday and churned toward Cuba and southern Florida.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Eta was located about 140 miles (220 kms) west-southwest of Camaguey, Cuba, Saturday and was moving northeast at 13 mph (20 kph) with winds of 65 mph (100 kph). The storm was expected to hit Cuba by early Sunday, and approach the Florida Keys and south Florida late Sunday or Monday.

Tropical storm warnings were issued for central Cuba, southern Florida and the Florida Keys. The hurricane center said flash floods could occur in the Cayman Islands, Jamaica and the Bahamas. Parts of southern Florida and the Keys were even put under a hurricane watch.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency Saturday for eight counties at the end of the state as Eta approached, urging residents to stock up on supplies. South Florida started emptying ports and a small number of shelters opened in Miami and the Florida Keys for residents in mobile homes and low lying areas.

The storms’ threat comes as many streets across South Florida have been inundated by heavy rains and unusual King Tides.

Back in Central America, which Eta reached as a Category 4 hurricane Tuesday before weakening into a tropical depression, authorities from Panama to Mexico were still surveying the damages from flooding and landslides following days of torrential rains. The confirmed death toll was in the dozens and expected to rise.

In Guatemala, where 15 people are confirmed dead but at least 109 are missing, search teams began pulling the first bodies from a landslide in San Cristobal Verapaz, but the work was slow and help was trickling in. Teams first had to overcome multiple landslides and deep mud just to reach the site where officials have estimated some 150 homes were devastated.

In the worst-hit village, Quejá at least five bodies have been pulled from the mud. The Indigenous community of about 1,200 residents consisted of simple homes of wood and tin roofs clinging to the mountainside