Storm Opens Giant Sinkhole In Guatemala City

(June 1) --
It looks like a gateway to hell. A 200-foot-deep sinkhole in the north of Guatemala City suddenly opened up in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Agatha, pulling a three-story building and a residential home into the bowels of the earth.

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The colossal chasm is just the latest sign of the chaos caused by this weekend's wild and violent weather, which killed at least 179 people across Central America. Agatha dumped more than three feet of rain on Guatemala and El Salvador over the weekend, causing rivers to burst their banks and hills to collapse into floods of slurry. The sinkhole, a nearly perfect circular shaft wider than a street intersection, appeared soon after the storm stopped lashing the capital.

So far, only one person -- a local security guard -- is thought to have died when the ground gave way. However, according to La Hora, authorities have not yet confirmed any fatalities. 

Luis Echeverria, Guatemala's Presidency/AP
Sinkholes are relatively common in Guatamala. This one, which opened after Tropical Storm Agatha, swallowed a three-story building and a home in Guatemala City.

Incredible as it may seem, spontaneous sinkholes like this -- known locally as an "hundimiento" -- are a relatively common occurrence in Guatemala. In fact, a sinkhole appeared in almost the same location three years ago.

Much of the country sits on top of a vast network of limestone caverns, known as Karst formations. These are caused by groundwater or oversaturated soil seeping below the surface and washing away the fragile limestone. Problems only start to occur on the surface when the water leaves the caverns -- which can happen when a storm stops -- as the whittled-out limestone is unable to support the weight of the earth above it, especially if holds high, heavy buildings.

According to La Hora, locals believe that a leaky sewage drainage system underground may have already weakened the subsurface rock, exacerbating the size of the sinkhole. Authorities say the chasm was solely caused by the storm, but have pledged to look into the incident.
Outside of Guatemala City, Agatha has taken an especially heavy toll. Officials report that at least 120 people are dead across the country and 53 missing. The municipality of Chimaltenango -- some 35 miles west of the capital -- was hit especially hard. Landslides entombed dozens of rural Indian communities, killing at least 60 people, local Gov. Erick de Leon told reporters.

"The department has collapsed," he told the Associated Press. "There are a lot of dead people. The roads are blocked. The shelters are overflowing. We need water, food, clothes, blankets -- but above all, money."

In neighboring El Salvador, meanwhile, more than 170 landslides have been reported and 11,000 people have been evacuated. President Mauricio Funes said that at least nine people are thought to have died.