October 29, 2005

Hurricane Beta gains power, lashes Nicaragua coast

By Cyntia Barrera Diaz

PUERTO CABEZAS, Nicaragua (Reuters) - Hurricane Beta gained
strength and lashed Nicaragua's jungle coast on Saturday night,
forcing thousands of Miskito Indians and other residents to
race for shelter.

Whipping up winds of 105 mph (160 kph), Beta was upgraded
to a Category 2 hurricane and forecasters warned it could be
even stronger by the time it hits land early on Sunday.

With the storm already battering this normally sleepy
fishing town, officials tried to find 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," Defense Minister Avil Ramirez said.

"I'm very frightened about the arrival of the storm," said
Douglas Marin, 13, who lives in an old, wooden shack.

Plastic sheets were nailed over windows at one concrete
shelter where 53 patients from the town's only hospital had
been moved for their safety.

"Most of the patients are stable," said Sonia Downs, a
53-year-old nurse in charge at the shelter as she prepared for
a sleepless night. "We have basic medicines."

Beta is the 23rd named storm of a record-breaking
Atlantic-Caribbean season. As it approached, barefoot fishing
families fled from coastal hamlets to seek protection in Puerto
Cabezas, where schools were turned into storm shelters.

But some families along the coast refused to leave their
flimsy wooden shacks even as Beta began pounding the area,
making palm trees dance in its wild winds.

"I'm not afraid, you should always trust in God. He is the
only one who can decide your fate," said Bartolo Panting, a
local builder. "I'm not moving until it's really raining.


Officials failed to persuade many residents to evacuate the
largely self-governing and independent coastal regions, where
residents are traditionally wary of outsiders.

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.

At 11 p.m. EDT, the storm was about 45 miles (75 km) east
of Puerto Cabezas and moving west at 5 mph (7 kph).

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Beta could become a
Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale
before making landfall. It said rains of 10 to 15 inches would
hit Honduras and Nicaragua with isolated maximum amounts of 25
inches possible. A Category 3 storm can cause extensive damage.

Beta was expected to slam into northeast 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.

In the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, and the industrial
city of San Pedro Sula, residents rushed to supermarkets to buy
basics and long lines formed at gasoline stations.

Beta earlier 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.

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.

Earlier this month, Hurricane Stan killed up to 2,000
people in Central America when its rains triggered mudslides.
Most of those killed were Guatemalan highland villagers.

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

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