October 28, 2005

Nicaragua evacuates coast in fear of Beta storm

By Cyntia Barrera Diaz

PUERTO CABEZAS, Nicaragua (Reuters) - Fishermen set out
along Nicaragua's Caribbean coast on Friday to evacuate
villagers and rush them to shelters as Tropical Storm Beta
loomed, the latest cyclone to threaten Central America.

The hospital in the sleepy port of Puerto Cabezas stocked
up with medicines for pneumonia in case slow-moving Beta cuts
off the low-lying area with its strong winds and torrential

Beta whipped up winds of 65 mph (100 kph) and was expected
to charge up to hurricane strength and make landfall on
Nicaragua's border with Honduras on Sunday morning.

By Friday afternoon, it was already dumping heavy rain on
Puerto Cabezas, home to 30,000 people.

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 last week.

"We heard about Wilma and we're a bit nervous," said
Veronica Cateo, the owner of a small convenience store.

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.

Boats sailed for the flood-threatened village of
Prinzapolka, lying in a marsh at a river delta, to bring 800
people to shelter in schools in Puerto Cabezas.

Officials said many in Puerto Cabezas were underestimating
the danger they could be facing.

"There has never been a hurricane here. The residents don't
know the threat from the wind. There's a certain disbelief,"
said Geronimo Giusto of the national civil protection agency.

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.


The eye of the storm was set to pass near Colombia's San
Andres and Providencia islands on Friday. The islands, near
Nicaragua, were once favored hideaways of famous 17th century
Welsh pirate Henry Morgan.

Meteorologists forecast Beta would become a hurricane and
make landfall early on Sunday morning.

"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 U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami 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 further
inland and maintains its strength. Mudslides are usually the
most deadly effect of hurricanes in Central America, where many
poor people live in precarious shacks on the sides of hills or

Locals said a hurricane had not hit Puerto Cabezas in
living memory and some were curious to know what it would be
like. Lobster fisherman Arquin Pereira, 30, was unfazed.

"We know about the storm but I don't think it will do
anything," he said on the town's beach, littered with garbage
and fallen coconuts.

At 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT), Beta had top sustained winds
near 65 mph. It was about 185 miles southeast of the Nicaraguan
coastal town of Bluefields and moving at 5 mph (seven kph).

(Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa)