Central America braces for powerful Hurricane Felix

Tens of thousands of people hunkered in storm shelters on Tuesday as Hurricane Felix roared toward Central America, but transport shortages left many facing the storm’s whipping winds and rain in their homes.

The highly dangerous category-four hurricane, due to make landfall around mid-morning, charged toward Honduras and Nicaragua with top sustained winds of 215km/h, provoking fears of a repeat of Hurricane Mitch, which killed about 10 00 people in Central America in 1998.

“There could be serious damage and material, like human, losses, if people do not take precautionary measures,” Honduran President Manuel Zelaya warned.

Up to 40 000 Hondurans were evacuated to shelters, but about 15 000 people were unable to find transportation and were forced to ride out the storm in their homes.

“They couldn’t be evacuated because there is no fuel to take them to safe areas,” said Carolina Echeverria, a deputy from Cabo Gracias a Dios on the border with Nicaragua, where Felix was headed.

Hundreds of tourists were flown to the Honduran mainland from beach and diving resorts on the Bay Islands, and police reported long lines at supermarkets and gas stations in coastal cities as residents stocked up on food, water and fuel.

Emergency workers sailed thousands of Miskito Indians out of sparsely populated, coastal areas near the border, dotted with lagoons and crocodile-infested rivers. The turtle-fishing Miskitos formed a British protectorate until the 19th century.

About 35 000 live in Honduras, and over 100 000 in Nicaragua.

Felix, the second hurricane of the 2007 Atlantic season, had been a top-ranked category-five storm like Hurricane Dean, which killed 27 people in the Caribbean and Mexico in August.

At 3am GMT, the United States National Hurricane Centre said Felix was 235km east of Cabo Gracias a Dios and expected to make landfall in under 12 hours.

“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 civil protection head Marco Burgos.

The World Food Programme said it had food stocks in the region that could feed 600 000 people for a month.

Record growth

Category-four is a major hurricane, capable of extensive damage and heavy flooding. Hurricane Katrina, one of the most devastating natural disasters in US history, was a category three when it made landfall near New Orleans in 2005.

Category-five hurricanes are rare, but there were four in 2005. Others this year could bolster claims that global warming is fueling stronger tropical cyclones.

Jeff Masters, meteorology chief at weatherunderground.com, said Felix set a record by taking just 51 hours to grow from a tropical depression to a category-five hurricane on Sunday.

London coffee futures ended higher on Monday, fueled by speculative buying on concern Felix might damage Central American arabica.

In Nicaragua, farmers feared Felix could cause a surge in “black beans,” which render coffee unexportable and leech nutrients from the soil, as Mitch did. “This brings back very difficult memories,” said Matagalpa grower Julio Solorzano.

Felix was expected to smack into Honduras, hit southern Belize and move through Guatemala’s Peten jungle region and into Mexico. Whether it would re-emerge over the Bay of Campeche, home of Mexico’s major offshore oil fields, and strengthen again in the Gulf of Mexico was unclear.

US energy firms and Mexican oil monopoly Pemex—skittish since hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 toppled rigs, cut pipelines and flooded refineries—were monitoring Felix. But they had not yet evacuated platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, source of a third of US and 70% of Mexican crude.

In the Pacific, Tropical Storm Henriette was headed toward Mexico’s Baja California peninsula at near hurricane strength after killing six people in Acapulco over the weekend and cutting off dozens of villages with flooding and mudslides.

Forecasters saw Henriette becoming a hurricane before hitting land on Tuesday afternoon and warned of floods and mudslides. - Reuters

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