October 29, 2005

Hurricane Beta churns off Nicaragua’s jungle coast

By Cyntia Barrera Diaz

PUERTO CABEZAS, Nicaragua (Reuters) - Hurricane Beta
churned off Nicaragua's jungle coast on Saturday and hundreds
of Miskito Indians in this sleepy port moved into shelters to
escape its howling winds and pounding rains.

Beta, the 23rd named hurricane of an unrelenting
Atlantic-Caribbean season, the most active since record-keeping
began more than 150 years ago, whipped up winds of 80 mph/130
kph as it inched toward Central America.

Barefoot fishing families carrying clothing in bags and
furniture on their backs fled from coastal hamlets to seek
protection in Puerto Cabezas, a normally laid-back port where
schools turned into storm shelters.

"I'm very frightened about the arrival of the storm," said
13-year-old Douglas Marin, who lives in a old, wooden shack in
Puerto Cabezas. "Houses could collapse as the wood they are
made from is rotten."

"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 ripped roofs off homes on the small Caribbean island
of Providencia on Friday, which along with neighboring San
Andres, was once a favored hideaway of famous 17th century
Welsh pirate Henry Morgan. No deaths were reported.

The storm was upgraded to a Category 1 hurricane on the
five-step Saffir-Simpson scale early Saturday and is expected
to strengthen in the next 24 hours, the U.S. National Hurricane
Center said.

"Beta could become a strong Category 2 hurricane before it
makes landfall along the east coast of Nicaragua," the
Miami-based center said, warning of storm surge flooding of 10
to 13 feet on the coast.


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 Central America's most isolated areas and
transport is often by plane or boat along muddy rivers.

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

"Hurricane Beta is expected to produce torrential rainfall
with totals of 10 to 15 inches across northeastern Honduras,
Nicaragua ... with isolated maximum amounts of 20 inches
possible," the hurricane center said.

Governments fear landslides if the storm moves inland and
holds 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 and volcanoes.

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.

Hurricane Stan killed as many as 2,000 people, mostly
Guatemalan highland villagers, by deluging large areas of
Central America with heavy rain earlier this month.

At 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT) Beta was about 120 miles/190 km
east of Puerto Cabezas and moving at 3 mph/6kph. The hurricane
could become stationary and its path is erratic, said the
Hurricane Center, which gave no timing for its landfall.

(Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa,
Ivan Castro in Managua)