Category 5 Hurricane Felix slams ashore on Central American coast, thousands stranded

Published 6:54 pm Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Hurricane Felix roared ashore early Tuesday as a fearsome Category 5 storm, the first time in recorded history that two top-scale storms have made landfall in the same season. The storm hit near the swampy Nicaragua-Honduras border, home to thousands of stranded Miskito Indians dependent on canoes to make their way to safety.

Felix was the first of two storms expected to make landfall on Tuesday: Off Mexico’s Pacific coast, Hurricane Henriette churned toward the upscale resort of Cabo San Lucas, popular with Hollywood stars and sea fishing enthusiasts.

On the Nicaraguan coast, 2,000 people were evacuated before the hurricane blew roofs off homes, blocked roads and knocked out telephone service, said Nicaragua’s Civil Defense chief, Rogelio Flores.

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Many other Miskito Indians refused to leave low-lying areas and head to shelters set up in schools. The newspaper La Prensa reported that 20 fishermen were missing.

Communication to the area was largely cut off, making it difficult to find out what was happening as the storm’s winds began hitting the remote, swampy area, much of it reachable only by canoe. The Nicaraguan government sent in some soldiers before the storm hit, but was preparing to send in more help once the hurricane passed.

In the seaside resort of La Ceiba, residents spent the night reinforcing the flimsy walls of their homes with plywood and sandbags.

“It’s going to be strong, but we have faith that Christ will protect us,” said Sandra Hernandez, a 37-year-old housewife who watched satellite images of the storm on television.

Hurricane Dean came ashore just last month as a Category 5 storm, and Felix’s landfall marked the first time that two Category 5 hurricanes have hit land in a season since 1886, 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.

“This is an extremely dangerous and potentially catastrophic hurricane. We just hope everybody has taken the precautions necessary to protect life and property,” Richard Pasch, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center, said Tuesday.

Indians along the isolated Miskito Coast live in wooden shacks, get around on canoes and subsist on fish, beans, rice, cassava and plantains. 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 estimated that 18,000 people must find their own way to higher ground.

Off Mexico’s Pacific coast, Henriette strengthened into a hurricane and was on a path to hit the tip of the Baja California Peninsula on Tuesday afternoon. The storm had sustained winds of 75 mph and, at 8 a.m. EDT, was centered about 80 miles south-southeast of the peninsula.

Before dawn Tuesday, strong waves pounded the resort’s beaches, rain fell in sheets and strong winds whipped palm trees. More than 100 residents spent the night in makeshift shelters as the storm approached, and more were expected to leave their homes Tuesday.

On Monday, police in Cabo San Lucas said one woman drowned in high surf stirred up by Henriette. Over the weekend, the storm caused flooding and landslides that killed six people in Acapulco.

On Tuesday, in the final hours before Hurricane Felix was expected to hit, Grupo Taca Airlines frantically airlifted tourists from the Honduran island of Roatan, popular for its pristine reefs and diving resorts, while the U.S. Southern Command said in a statement that a Chinook helicopter evacuated 19 U.S. citizens, including tourists and members of U.S. Joint Task Force-Bravo who were visiting the island.

Bob Shearer, 54, from Butler, Pa., said he was disappointed his family’s scuba diving trip to Roatan was cut short by the evacuation order.

“I only got seven dives in. I hope they didn’t jump the gun too soon,” he said as he waited for a flight home in the San Pedro Sula airport.

Felix was projected to rake central Honduras, slam into Guatemala and then cut across southern Mexico, well south of Texas.

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.

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. In the highland capital of Tegucigalpa, more than 100 miles inland, authorities cleared vendors from markets prone to flooding.

Meteorologists agree that it is impossible to determine if any single hurricane is the result of climate change, but they differ on the key question of whether global warming is making hurricanes stronger.

Some scientists say that more intense hurricanes are forming because of human-caused increases of sea surface temperatures. Others say that newer technology such as satellites and other devices allow better storm strength measurements, and that accounts for the increase in detecting more powerful hurricanes.

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