October 30, 2005

Hurricane Beta strengthens, lashes Nicaragua coast

By Cyntia Barrera Diaz

PUERTO CABEZAS, Nicaragua (Reuters) - Hurricane Beta gained
power early on Sunday as it battered Nicaragua's Caribbean
coast, where troops tried to rush thousands of people into
shelters to escape its fierce winds and rains.

Beta strengthened to almost a Category 3 hurricane with
winds of 110 mph (175 kph), and forecasters warned it could be
even stronger by the time its eye hits the jungle coast in the
next few hours.

With the storm already lashing the normally sleepy fishing
town of Puerto Cabezas, officials raced to find solid shelters
for its residents and Miskito Indian evacuees from small
fishing villages along the coast.

"It is impossible to think you could evacuate 50,000 people
between now and 6 in the morning. We don't have the means to do
it," President Enrique Bolanos said in a late night television
and radio address. "We are doing everything humanly possible."

Defense Minister Avil Ramirez said the army has food and
medicines in place but that it was impossible to evacuate this
remote town and he warned many homes might not survive.

"Puerto Cabezas has simple wooden homes and, faced with
these wind speeds, unfortunately no one can be prepared."

Plastic sheets were nailed over windows at one concrete
shelter where 53 patients from the town's only hospital had
been moved for their safety.

"Most of the patients are stable," said Sonia Downs, a
53-year-old nurse in charge at the shelter as she prepared for
a sleepless night. "We have basic medicines."

Beta is the 23rd named storm of this year's relentless,
record-breaking Atlantic-Caribbean season.

Nicaragua and neighboring Honduras feared the slow-moving
storm's rains would trigger mudslides in mountainous areas
further inland. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch killed an estimated
10,000 people across Central America.

As Beta approached, barefoot fishing families fled from
coastal hamlets to seek protection in Puerto Cabezas, where
schools were turned into storm shelters.

But some families along the coast refused to leave their
flimsy wooden shacks even as Beta began pounding the area,
making palm trees dance in its wild winds.

"I'm not afraid, you should always trust in God. He is the
only one who can decide your fate," said Bartolo Panting, a
local builder. "I'm not moving until it's really raining.


Small fishing villages populated by Indian tribes like the
Miskitos and descendants of escaped African slaves are strung
along the Caribbean coast, one of Central America's most
isolated areas.

Residents are traditionally wary of outsiders and officials
were unable to persuade many to leave their homes.

Soldiers evacuated 170 people from one coastal village but
30 others refused to leave. "These people do not believe in
danger until they really feel it," said Col. Mario
Perez-Cassar, the head of Nicaragua's civil defense.

At 1 a.m. EST (0600 GMT), the storm was about 55 miles (85
km) southeast of Puerto Cabezas and moving west-southwest at 8
mph (13 kph).

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Beta could become a
Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale
before making landfall.

It warned of storm surge flooding of up to 17 feet (5
meters) and said rains of 10 to 15 inches would hit Nicaragua
and Honduras with isolated maximum amounts of 25 inches
possible. A Category 3 storm can cause extensive damage.

Honduras declared a national emergency and prepared to
evacuate up to 125,000 people.

In the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, and the industrial
city of San Pedro Sula, residents rushed to supermarkets to buy
basics and long lines formed at gasoline stations.

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

Earlier this month, Hurricane Stan killed up to 2,000
people in Central America when its rains caused mudslides. Most
of those killed were Guatemalan highland villagers.

Last week, Hurricane Wilma wrecked Mexico's Caribbean beach
resorts, flooded Cuba and pounded southern Florida.

(Additional reporting by Hugh Bronstein in Bogota, Gustavo
Palencia in Tegucigalpa and Ivan Castro in Managua)