October 29, 2005

Hurricane Beta targets 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.

With the storm on course for a direct hit on this normally
sleepy fishing town, officials scrambled to find more solid
buildings to convert into shelters but feared there was not
enough safe space for its 50,000 inhabitants, plus evacuees.

"We are prepared with food, we are prepared with medicines,
with rescue soldiers, but we do not have the space to shelter
thousands of people" in Puerto Cabezas, Defense Minister Avil
Ramirez told local television.

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

"I'm very frightened about the arrival of the storm," said
13-year-old Douglas Marin, who lives in an old, wooden shack in
Puerto Cabezas. "Houses could collapse as the wood they are
made from is rotten."

Some local residents refused to move to safer spots to
avoid the full force of Beta, which pounded the port with rain,
its gusts sending palm trees dancing.

"I'm not afraid, one should always trust in God. He is the
only one who can decide on one's fate," said Bartolo Panting, a
40 year-old builder. "I'm not moving until it's really

Earlier, 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.

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


Soldiers evacuated 170 people from one coastal village but
30 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 is expected to slam into Nicaragua and move overland
into neighboring Honduras, which declared a national emergency
on Saturday, warning of mudslides and flooding as it prepared
to evacuate up to 125,000 people

Beta ripped roofs off homes on Colombia's 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 reported.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe arrived in San Andres on
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, 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 center said.

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, 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)