November 20, 2005

Gamma kills 12 in Central America

By Tomas Bravo

EL PROGRESO, Honduras (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Gamma
lashed Central America on Saturday and killed at least 12
people, three of them in a plane crash on their way to a luxury
jungle lodge owned by film director Francis Ford Coppola.

In Honduras, Gamma's torrential rains, which followed
several days of downpours from a cold front, cut off Caribbean
coast villages, killed at least nine people and left 14 others
missing. Several disappeared when a rescue boat overturned in
raging river waters.

Slow-moving Gamma is the 24th named storm of a
record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season and is cutting an
erratic course off the Caribbean coast of Central America and
toward Cuba, where it is expected to land on Monday. The storm
was not expected to gain strength.

Experts said it would bypass Mexico's Yucatan peninsula,
which is recovering from a battering by Hurricane Wilma three
weeks ago, and revised earlier predictions to say it probably
would not directly hit southern Florida, where Wilma also
wreaked havoc.

"We expect it to move over central Cuba and then out toward
the Bahamas," said Jennifer Pralgo, a meteorologist with the
U.S. National Hurricane Center.

Tragedy struck near Coppola's Blancaneaux Lodge in the
remote mountains of western Belize when a twin-engine plane
owned by the resort crashed with a pilot and two guests on
board as they flew in for a jungle vacation.

"We are extremely distressed," said Kathleen Talbert, a
spokeswoman for Coppola's resorts. She said authorities had not
determined the cause of the accident but that weather
conditions had deteriorated quickly before the crash.

Over 5,000 people were evacuated on Honduras' Caribbean
coast and rescue officials said more than 50,000 were cut off
as bridges were damaged or destroyed, leaving several cities
and towns isolated. Engineers were working to erect temporary
bridges in heavy rainfall.


"The damage is terrible on all the northern coast," said
Honduran President Ricardo Maduro in the northern city of El
Progreso. "There are people on the roofs of their homes because
of the flooding."

About 60 percent of El Progreso, a city of 200,000 people
on a river near the coast, was under water. Rescue workers took
boats to isolated communities on the Ulua River to search for
stranded residents.

At 10 p.m. EST (0200 GMT on Saturday), Gamma was about 90
miles northeast of Limon, Honduras, and was moving northeast at
about 6 mph (10 kph) with sustained winds of 45 mph (75 kph).

Honduran officials urged communities cut off by the storm
to ration food and water until help arrived.

"The people of various communities are clamoring for help
to be rescued and get food but we can't go because the rainy
conditions prevent us from getting there by sea, by river or
air," said Hugo Arevalo, a deputy director of national disaster
commission Copeco.

Gamma was named, like its two predecessors, Alpha and Beta,
from the Greek alphabet after the official list of storm names
for 2005 was exhausted.

It was first expected to follow the path of Wilma, which
battered Mexico's Caribbean resorts of Cancun and Cozumel and
then knocked out electricity for 6.5 million people in south

Earlier in October, Hurricane Stan killed up to 2,000
people in Central America as flash floods and mudslides washed
away whole villages.

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans after slamming
ashore on August 29, killing more then 1,000 people.

(Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa,