October 29, 2005

Beta upgraded to hurricane, batters Caribbean

By Cyntia Barrera Diaz

PUERTO CABEZAS, Nicaragua (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Beta
was upgraded to a hurricane on Saturday as it punished a small
Caribbean island with fierce winds and hundreds of Miskito
Indians streamed into shelters in a sleepy Nicaraguan port to
escape exposed villages.

Beta, the latest cyclone in a record-breaking season,
whipped Colombia's Providencia island with winds nearing 80 mph
(130 km/hr) as it inched its way toward Central America.

The wind ripped roofs off homes on the island, which along
with neighboring San Andres, was once a favored hideaway of
famous 17th-century Welsh pirate Henry Morgan. No deaths were

In Nicaragua, barefooted fishing families carrying clothing
in bags and furniture on their backs fled coastal hamlets to
seek protection in Puerto Cabezas, where schools doubled as
storm shelters.

"We heard on the radio we had to leave," said fisherman
Bismark Williams, 35, who was picked up by a boat under
government orders to evacuate as many people as possible from
the coast.

Beta was upgraded early Saturday to a Category 1 hurricane
and was forecast to strengthen further in the next 24 hours and
could become a strong Category 2 before it makes landfall along
the east coast of Nicaragua on Sunday, the U.S. National
Hurricane Center in Miami said.

"We think 600-700 people have already come in, and there
are more boats on their way," said Orlando Aberlado, in charge
of deploying the fishing craft used in the evacuation.

Small fishing villages populated by Indian tribes like the
Miskitos and descendants of escaped African slaves are strung
along the Caribbean coast of Honduras and Nicaragua.

It is one of the region's most isolated areas and transport
is often by plane or boat along muddy rivers.

"We are considering evacuating some 8,000 people from
different places along the coast," said Col. Mario
Perez-Cassar, the head of Nicaragua's civil defense.

Puerto Cabezas' hospital stocked up with medicines for
pneumonia in case slow-moving Beta cuts off the low-lying area
with its strong winds and torrential rains.

A rainbow arched over the town of 30,000 people as heavy
rainfall temporarily eased on Friday evening.

A record number of cyclones have hit the Atlantic-Caribbean
area this hurricane season and residents were concerned after
Hurricane Wilma wrecked Mexico's Caribbean beach resorts,
flooded Cuba and pounded southern Florida this month.

Another hurricane, Stan, killed as many as 2,000 people,
mostly Guatemalan highland villagers, by deluging large areas
of Central America with heavy rain early in October.


"Beta is expected to produce rainfall totals of 10 to 15
inches across northeastern Honduras, Nicaragua and San Andres
and Providencia with isolated maximum amounts of 20 inches
possible," the Hurricane Center said.

Authorities in Honduras were on alert for mudslides and
flooding from rivers when the rain starts to fall hard.

"We are working on the worst-case scenario and sending
food, medicine and road-repairing equipment and getting
shelters ready in schools and other public buildings for
possible evacuations," said Juan Ramon Salinas, head of
operations at the Honduran civil protection agency.

Governments fear landslides if the storm moves farther
inland and maintains its strength. Mudslides are usually the
most deadly effect of hurricanes in Central America, where many
poor people live in flimsy shacks on the sides of hills or

At 5 a.m. EDT (0600 GMT), Beta was about 130 miles east of
Puerto Cabezas and moving northwest at near 3 mph (5 kph). The
hurricane could become stationary at times and its path
erratic, the Hurricane Center said.

(Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa)