October 30, 2005

Hurricane Beta belts Nicaragua, threatens mudslides

By Cyntia Barrera Diaz

PUERTO CABEZAS, Nicaragua (Reuters) - Hurricane Beta
barreled into Nicaragua's Caribbean coast on Sunday and once
inland lost steam to be downgraded to a tropical storm but its
torrential rains still threatened mudslides and floods.

After pinning thousands of people in flimsy shelters
overnight, Beta churned over northern Nicaragua and dumped
heavy rain over the Central American nation and neighboring
Honduras and El Salvador.

Packing winds of 65 mph 100 kph and higher gusts, emergency
officials said no deaths were reported in Nicaragua, although
the forecast downpour raised fears of flooding and lethal
mudslides in mountain villages.

"We have not had reports of deaths, no people knocked
about, nor injured," civil defense operations chief Samuel
Perez said. "But we expect rivers to swell."

The whereabouts of one small boat with 10 people aboard was
not known. The vessel left Puerto Cabezas on Saturday afternoon
to evacuate isolated coastal fishermen but lost contact with
military authorities.

In this normally sleepy fishing town in the remote jungle
of northeast Nicaragua, residents and Miskito Indian evacuees
from fishing villages had rushed into makeshift shelters but
Beta caused little structural damage.

In neighboring Honduras, communications went down as
isolated coastal villages flooded, authorities said. About
8,000 were evacuated as rivers broke their banks. The
government flew in food, water and blankets to the Caribbean

Both countries were ravaged in 1998 by Hurricane Mitch,
whose heavy rains killed about 10,000 people across Central
America. This month, Hurricane Stan killed up to 2,000 people
in Central America, most of them Maya Indians in Guatemala
whose homes were swallowed in landslides.


In the Honduran fishing town of Iriona, local residents
climbed onto the roofs of their houses to avoid flood waters.

"About 80 percent of the town is flooded," said mayor
Simeon Crisanto. "My own house of under water. The water is
above my knees."

Beta is the 13th hurricane and 23rd named storm of the
relentless, record-breaking Atlantic storm season.

Small fishing hamlets dot the isolated Caribbean coast of
Nicaragua and Honduras, populated by Miskito Indians and the
descendants of escaped African slaves.

At 4 p.m. EST (2100 GMT), Beta was south of Puerto Cabezas
and 65 miles northwest of Bluefields, Nicaragua's other
Caribbean port, moving westward at 7 mph (11 kph).

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said that 10 to 15
inches of rain would hit Nicaragua and eastern Honduras, with
up to 25 inches possible in some spots.

"These rains could cause life-threatening flash floods and
mudslides," the Miami-based center said. It also forecast heavy
rain in El Salvador and southern Honduras.

In Puerto Cabezas, eight families spent the night holed up
in a small Baptist church, its windows protected from howling
winds and torrential rain by wooden boards.

"We prayed," said Azucena Coulson, the wife of the pastor.
"I was the one who was panicking, but I had to keep calm as the
church leader."

Beta had 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.

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

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