BELMOPAN - Belize Prime Minister Dean Barrow has declared a national emergency following the deaths of five people, including three children, and the destruction in some areas of the country as a result of heavy rains caused by Tropical Storm Arthur.

The system, which emerged in the Caribbean last Saturday but dissipated by the following day, dumped heavy rainfall on Belize that resulted in rivers in the north and south of the country cresting their banks and causing flooding, as well as the destruction of three major bridges on the southern highway and the coastal road. Additionally, a number of culverts on the Hummingbird Highway were washed away, resulting in a 20-foot gap in one section of the stretch; a number of houses were destroyed, damaged or submerged and many of the country's crops have also been destroyed by the flooding.

As the country assesses the damage and the clean-up and the search for other missing people continue, Prime Minister Barrow said that the Stann Creek District and that portion of the Belize district around Gales Point were declared disaster areas after he and other members of his Cabinet conferred with United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Representative in Belize, Rana Flowers.

"That means that UN agencies can be able then to think in terms of relief. For sure though, initially we are hoping to trigger some funds that will assist in building replacement homes for the people," he said, adding that the minister responsible for the National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO) would be in charge of the reconstruction of the homes.

Mr Barrow said the focus now was on getting relief aid - including food, water, clothing and blankets - to those who needed it as soon as possible.

NEMO Coordinator George Lovell said Tuesday that there were about 730 displaced persons in shelters across the country.

The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA) has been keeping an eye on the situation caused by the first storm of the 2008 Atlantic Hurricane Season. Tropical Storm Arthur was what was called Tropical Storm Alma which developed in the Eastern Pacific on May 27. It was renamed after it crossed into the Atlantic.

In its latest situation report issued on Tuesday, CDERA said, "NEMO has identified three areas that will be seriously impacted by the recent floods: the agricultural industry, especially the rice crops; the oil industry, due to the destruction of key bridges on the Southern Highway; and the tourism industry".

"NEMO has been providing relief supplies to all the affected areas using the maritime assets from the Belize Defence Force, the Belize Coast Guard and the British Forces Helicopter to access those communities that are inaccessible by road. NEMO has also pre-positioned containers of foodstuff at strategic locations across the country. The objective is to have access to relief supplies within two hours from any affected area," it added.

The Mexican government has also provided two utility helicopters to assist NEMO with distributing relief supplies to the affected areas and a number of Coast Guard Vessels have been strategically stationed to provide a quick evacuation, if required, for residents who have chosen to remain in the affected areas.

"This is still considered as a Level One event, which means that the situation is managed at the national level," CDERA said. "It is recognised that the potential exists for an upgrade of this level once further assessment is undertaken on damage to the south and any increase in flooding in the north."

It added that the remnants of Arthur continue to produce rain over parts of Belize and Guatemala and while it's not expected that the system will redevelop, "the associated heavy rains could cause life-threatening flash floods and mud slides especially in mountainous terrain during the next couple of days as it moves away from Belize".

A flood warning remains in effect for the southern and northern districts of Belize.

Meantime, Prime Minister Barrow has been responding to criticism that residents of the affected areas were not given adequate warning.

He said that Acting Chief Meteorologist Ramon Frutos had explained to him that "this was really a kind of freak occurrence that, with the best will in the world and with all the resources in the world, we could not have anticipated".

Mr Frutos told reporters that "Arthur was a very strange thing".

"Imagine a storm developing right over your area; we cannot go into the orthodox procedure of going preliminary phase to red one, red two. We had to start somewhere and if the system was weak like Arthur it gets more complex because you can't go and activate the whole country because it was not the whole country that was being affected," he said.

"We were only expecting coastal areas especially in northern coastal area and interior to continue to get the inclement weather that this weak tropical storm was causing...There are no forecasters, no hurricane centres throughout the world that can forecast what was going to happen in a situation like this because it just blew up in your face.

"Some of this water was the run off resulting from the remnants of Alma that crossed through Honduras and into Guatemala and southern Belize. The thing is that you could not pinpoint where the danger zone was going to be," Mr Frutos added.