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03 Sep 2007 17:51
Hurricane Felix, a potentially catastrophic storm with 260km/h winds, threatened on Monday to plow along the Caribbean coast of Honduras and dump torrential rain across Central America.
Felix, the second hurricane of the 2007 season, and like last month’s Hurricane Dean a top-ranked category-five storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, maintained its deadly power overnight as it roared swiftly westward over the warm waters of the Caribbean.
Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize posted hurricane alerts. Tropical-storm alerts remained in effect for Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, although Felix was expected to stay well to their south.
Category-five hurricanes, which can cause catastrophic damage, are considered rare, but there were four of them in the devastating 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, including Katrina, and having two of them in a row tear through the Caribbean this year could boost claims that global warming may produce stronger tropical cyclones.
Honduras, where Hurricane Mitch killed thousands in 1998, declared an alert in five northern departments and began preparing shelters and setting up rescue teams.
“We are faced with a very serious threat to lives and property.
The most important thing is that people pay heed to the call for evacuation so that we don’t have to count bodies later,” said Marco Burgos, head of Honduras’s civil protection agency.
By 3pm GMT, Felix was about 585km east of Cabo Gracias a Dios on the Nicaraguan-Honduras border and speeding westward at 33km/h, a brisk pace for a storm, the United States National Hurricane Centre said.
It was a small storm, with hurricane-force winds only extending out about 48km from its centre.
There were signs of some slight weakening but fluctuations in strength are normal for such intense storms, the Miami-based hurricane centre said.
Its rains might be as severe a threat as its ferocious winds. Felix was expected to drop 12,7cm to 20,3cm of rain across northern Honduras and north-eastern Nicaragua. In some areas, 30,5cm of rain could fall, possibly producing dangerous flashfloods and mudslides.
In 1974, Hurricane Fifi killed up to 8 000 people in Honduras after grazing the Caribbean coast and dumping up to 61cm of rain on the northern mountains, sending rivers over their banks.
Much of the area where Felix was due to pass in Honduras is sparsely populated lowland where roads are few and often inundated at this time of year. Travel is by plane or boat along the many rivers that criss-cross the territory.
The storm was also due to brush past the Bay Islands, off the northern Honduran coast, which are popular with foreign tourists for diving and snorkelling.
The computer models used to predict a storm’s future track had originally forecast that Felix would slam into Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, like Dean, which killed 27 people in the Caribbean in August. But most of the models shifted southward overnight, taking the storm into Central America.
Whether Felix would be able to re-emerge over the Bay of Campeche, where Mexico has its major offshore oil fields, and strengthen again in the Gulf of Mexico was unclear.
The US energy industry, skittish about storms since hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 toppled rigs, cut pipelines and flooded refineries, was monitoring Felix carefully, but companies said they had yet to evacuate platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, where one-third of US domestic crude is produced and 15% of its natural gas.
Weather experts have predicted the 2007 hurricane season will be busy. It is near its peak, as most storms come between August 20 and mid-October.—Reuters
Additional reporting by Michael Christie in Miami
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