Thousands in Nicaragua flee ahead of Beta

Hurricane Beta dumped heavy rains and whipped up winds on Central America’s Caribbean coast on Saturday, prompting Nicaraguan troops to evacuate thousands of people as Honduras declared a maximum state of alert.

The storm strengthened to a category-two hurricane, with winds topping 165kph, before reaching the mainland on Sunday, near the border between Nicaragua and Honduras.

Hondurans nervously watched the progress of Beta as President Ricardo Maduro warned of the importance of being prepared to avoid another Hurricane Mitch, which in 1998 stalled over Honduras with 205kph winds, sweeping away bridges, flooding neighbourhoods and killing thousands of people.

Before edging westward toward Central America, a slow-moving Beta, the record 13th hurricane of this year’s Atlantic storm season, lashed the Colombian island of Providencia with heavy winds, torrential rains and high surf.

Several people were injured during the hurricane, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said on Saturday, though he did not provide an exact figure or give the extent of the injuries. No deaths were reported.

Roofs were ripped off of dozens of wooden homes, the island’s main communications tower was knocked over and a tourist foot bridge was torn apart. But most of the 5 000 islanders stayed safe by climbing Providencia’s many hills to hunker down in brick shelters.

In Nicaragua, troops on Saturday evacuated 10 000 people from the far eastern coastal port of Cabo de Gracias a Dios, and from along the River Coco, both on the Honduras border, said Nicaragua’s national civil defence director, Lieutenant Colonel Mario Perez Cassar.

The Civil Defence Department sent 100 army rescue specialists along with various land and water vehicles.
A tent hospital also was set up, while universities and public schools were closed and converted into shelters. Flights to the Nicaraguan islands Islas del Maiz were cancelled.

Residents of low-lying neighbourhoods in Puerto Cabeza were taken to provisional shelters on higher ground as heavy rains and wind began to batter the coast, flooding some low-lying neighbourhoods. Businesses raised food prices in response to the heavy demand, while bottled water supplies ran out. Authorities threatened to sanction the price gougers.

Mayor Gustavo Ramos said 10 people were reported missing after their boat disappeared in the storm, trying to escape the storm.

Maximum alert

In Honduras on Saturday, President Ricardo Maduro declared a maximum state of alert as strong winds and intense rains from Beta began to batter the Atlantic coast. Authorities evacuated more than 50 people due to flooding in a coastal city also known as Gracias a Dios, on the border with Nicaragua.

Schools were closed in La Ceiba, 350km north of the capital, Tegucigalpa, and officials also shut down the international airport there.

El Salvador went on preventative alert, although the storm is not projected at this point to reach the country.

At 3am GMT, Beta was centred 150km south-east of Honduras’ Cabo Gracias a Dios and 75km east of Nicaragua’s Puerto Cabezas. The storm had maximum sustained winds of 150kph and was moving west at about 7kph, the National Hurricane Centre in Miami said.

The eye was expected to reach the north-eastern coast of Nicaragua and nearby islands early on Sunday, the centre said.

The storm was expected to dump 25cm to 40cm of rain across north-eastern Honduras.

Beta is the 13th hurricane this year, more than any Atlantic season on record. This season has seen 23 named storms, more than at any point since record-keeping began in 1851.

Early this month, Hurricane Stan hit southern Mexico at category-one strength on October 4, caused flooding and mudslides that killed 71 people in the southern state of Chiapas and left 654 dead—and 828 missing—in neighbouring Guatemala. Another 71 died in El Salvador.

Hurricane Wilma, which reached category-five strength and was still a category-four storm when it made landfall, killed four people in Mexico, 12 in Haiti, one in Jamaica and was blamed for at least 14 deaths in Florida.

Late last week, Wilma battered Mexico’s famous tourist-oriented Caribbean coastline, including the resort city of Cancun, and its offshore islands. It was estimated by Mexican insurance companies to be the country’s most costly disaster to date, with payments topping the $1,2-billion the industry paid out after Hurricane Gilbert in 1988.—Sapa-AP

Associated Press writers Filadelfo Aleman in Managua, Nicaragua; Freddy Cuevas in Tegucigalpa, Honduras; Marko Alvarez in San Andres Island, Colombia; and Dan Molinski in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report

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