Monday, September 3, 2007

Tourists flee as Felix nears

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras - Planes shuttled tourists from island resorts in a desperate airlift Monday as Hurricane Felix bore down on Honduras and Belize. But thousands of Miskito Indians were stranded along a swampy coastline where the Category 4 storm was expected to make landfall.

Grupo Taca Airlines provided special free flights to the mainland, quickly touching down and taking off again to scoop up more tourists. Some 1,000 people were evacuated from the Honduran island of Roatan, popular for its pristine reefs and diving resorts. Another 1,000 were removed from low-lying coastal areas and smaller islands.

Felix's top winds weakened slightly to 135 mph as it headed west, but forecasters warned that it could strengthen again before landfall along the Miskito Coast early Tuesday. From there, it was projected to rake northern Honduras, slam into southern Belize on Wednesday and then cut across northern Guatemala and southern Mexico, well south of Texas.

A storm surge of more than 18 feet above normal tides could devastate Indian communities along the Miskito Coast, a swampy, isolated region straddling the Honduras-Nicaragua border where thousands live in wooden shacks, get around on canoes and subsist on fish, beans, rice, cassava and plantains.

"There's nowhere to go here," said teacher Sodeida Rodriguez, 26, who was hunkering down in a concrete shelter.

The only path to safety is up rivers and across lakes that are too shallow for regular boats, but many lack gasoline for long journeys. Provincial health official Efrain Burgos said shelters were being prepared, and medicine and sanitation kits were being brought in, but that 18,000 people must find their own way to higher ground.

"We're asking the people who are on the coasts to find a way to safer areas, because we don't have the capability to transport so many people," he said. "The houses are made of wood. They're going to be completely swept away. They're not safe."

The storm was following the same path as 1998's Hurricane Mitch, a sluggish storm that stalled for a week over Central America, killing nearly 11,000 people and leaving more than 8,000 missing, mostly in Honduras and Nicaragua. But Felix was expected to keep up its rapid pace of 21 mph, much faster than Mitch.

By Monday afternoon, crashing waves reached 15 feet higher than normal on Honduras' coast, but there was no rain yet.

"We are ready to face an eventual tragedy," said Roatan fire chief Douglas Fajardo.

Most tourists took the free flights out, but locals prepared to ride out the storm.

"We know it's a tremendous hurricane that's coming," said real estate worker Estella Marazzito.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Felix could dump up to 12 inches of rain in isolated parts of northern Honduras and northeastern Nicaragua, possibly bringing flash floods and mudslides. As far away as the highland capital of Tegucigalpa, more than 100 miles inland, authorities cleared vendors from markets prone to flooding.

Across the border in Belize City, skies grew increasingly cloudy and winds kicked up as residents boarded windows and lined up for gas. Tourists competed for the last seats on flights to Atlanta and Miami. Police went door-to-door forcing evacuations. Liquor sales were banned, and stores were running out of plywood and other supplies.

"I just wish they had more airplanes to take care of everyone who has to leave," said Atlanta, Georgia, resident Mitzi Carr, 48, who cut short her weeklong vacation on Hatchet Caye.

Belize is still cleaning up from last month's Hurricane Dean, which killed 28 people as plowed through the Caribbean and slammed into Mexico as a Category 5 storm just north of Felix's track. Dean damaged crops everywhere it passed, including an estimated $100 million in Belize alone.

"I stopped cleaning debris and trees from my yard. Might just get messed up again," Wayne Leonardo said in Belize City.

Over the weekend, Felix toppled trees, flooded homes and forced tourists indoors on the Dutch islands of Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire, but caused little damage. It then grew to a Category 5 storm Monday before losing a bit of its punch.

This is only the fourth Atlantic hurricane season since 1886 with more than one Category 5 hurricane, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Only 31 such storms have been recorded in the Atlantic, including eight in the last five seasons.

If Felix regains Category 5 winds before striking land, it would be the first time in recorded history that two such killer storms have made landfall in the same season, hurricane specialist Jamie Rhome said in Miami.

At 5 p.m. EDT, Felix remained a fearsome hurricane, though it had a very small wind field, with hurricane-force winds extending just 30 miles from its center. It was centered 250 miles east of the Nicaragua-Honduras border, moving west at 20 mph.

Off Mexico's Pacific coast, meanwhile, Tropical Storm Henriette was nearing hurricane strength on a path to hit the resort-studded tip of the Baja California Peninsula on Tuesday.

With maximum sustained winds near 70 mph, Henriette caused flooding and landslides that killed six people in Acapulco. Three died when a boulder fell on their home, and three when a landslide hit their house.

At 5 p.m. EDT, Henriette was centered 185 miles south-southeast of the tip of the peninsula, pushing waves up to 22 feet high as it moved northwest at 9 mph.

Meterologist Rebecca Waddington warned that both hurricanes could shift course. "Even if the forecast is perfect, that's only forecasting where the center of the storm is going to go," she said. "So everyone in the area needs to be aware of it."

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