Central America reeled on Tuesday after the first eastern Pacific tropical storm of the season, Agatha, hammered the region with heavy rains that killed 179 people and washed away thousands of homes.

Hardest hit was Guatemala, with 152 people killed, dozens injured and at least 100 people missing after floods and mudslides swept away ramshackle homes along hills and destroyed bridges and roads, complicating rescue efforts.

President Alvaro Colom released a photograph of a sinkhole in the capital that swallowed up an entire three-storey building.

In countries on the mountainous and mostly poor isthmus linking North and South America, the poorest people often build their homes near rivers so they have access to water. But in the rainy season, these homes are endangered by swollen rivers and mudslides.

Houses destroyed

Agatha, which dumped heavy rains on the isthmus just ahead of Tuesday's first day of the Atlantic hurricane season, destroyed up to 22,000 homes in Guatemala, forcing 1,55,000 people from their homes, officials said. About half of those affected were staying in shelters, they added.

The storm killed 17 people in Honduras and 10 in El Salvador, according to official figures.

With millions of dollars in damages and the impoverished population particularly hard-hit, the United States pledged $1,12,500 and sent an airplane carrying relief supplies Tuesday, while the European Union pledged $3.6 million in humanitarian aid.

Mr. Colom said he would ask Washington to grant Guatemalan migrants in the U.S. temporary protected status that would allow them to stay and work without fear of deportation because of the conditions in Guatemala. Salvadorans and Hondurans living in the U.S. already have this special status.

“It's something we sought a while ago, but now the timing is favourable with this natural disaster,” Guatemala's deputy foreign minister Miguel Angel Ibarra said.

A U.S. plane and four helicopters carrying supplies were due in Guatemala City from the base in Honduras to help deliver emergency aid to the Guatemalan Air Force, at Mr. Colom's request.

Volcano eruption

Guatemala City's response, meanwhile, was hampered by a separate emergency: the eruption of the nearby Pacaya volcano, whose ash has closed the capital's Aurora international airport since last week, when two people were killed and three went missing. The closure of the airport has left thousands of travellers stranded.

But the airport, closed since Thursday, was reopened on Tuesday to commercial and freight flights, civil aviation spokeswoman Monica Monge said.

The World Bank said it was finalising with Guatemala an $85 million loan to help it cope with the two disasters.

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