October 29, 2005

Hurricane Beta takes aim at Nicaragua jungle coast

By Cyntia Barrera Diaz

PUERTO CABEZAS, Nicaragua (Reuters) - Hurricane Beta
barreled toward Nicaragua's jungle coast on Saturday and
hundreds of Miskito Indians and local residents huddled in
shelters from the storm's lashing rains and wicked winds.

An unknown number of fishermen and their families on the
sparsely populated coast refused to leave their flimsy wooden
shacks, oblivious to the danger from Beta, which whipped up
winds of 90 mph (150 kph) as it headed for Central America.

Beta, the 23rd named hurricane of an unrelenting
Atlantic-Caribbean season, the most active since record-keeping
began more than 150 years ago, picked up steam and forecasters
predicted landfall in Nicaragua overnight.

One small military boat landed at Puerto Cabezas late on
Saturday with 50 evacuees aboard, mainly fishermen, and
immediately set off back along the coast to pick up others.

Barefoot fishing families carrying clothing in bags and
furniture on their backs fled from coastal hamlets ahead of the
full fury of the storm to seek protection in Puerto Cabezas,
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."

Military and government officials struggled to persuade
many inhabitants to evacuate the largely self-governing and
independent coastal regions of Nicaragua, where the locals are
traditionally wary of outsiders.

"Of the 8,000 people we were thinking of evacuating, we
have 780 registered in shelters in Puerto Cabezas," Interior
Minister Julio Vega said.


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.

Beta ripped roofs off homes and flooded streets 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

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe arrived on San Andres
Saturday to coordinate relief efforts. He plans a trip to
Providencia as soon as conditions allow.

The Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson
scale was expected to become even stronger before making
landfall in Nicaragua, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

"Beta is expected to become a Category 2 hurricane and
there is a chance it could become a Category 3 hurricane," the
center said, warning of storm surge flooding of 10 to 15 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
transportation is often by plane or boat along muddy rivers.

"Hurricane Beta is expected to produce torrential rainfall
with totals of 10 to 15 inches across northeastern Honduras and
Nicaragua ... with isolated maximum amounts of 25 inches
possible," the Miami-based 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 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT), Beta was about 75 miles east of
Puerto Cabezas and moving at 5 mph (7 kph).

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