Tourists flee as Felix nears (video)

Other News Materials 4 September 2007 10:50 (UTC +04:00)

( AP ) - Planes shuttled tourists from island resorts in a desperate airlift Monday as Hurricane Felix bore down on Honduras and Belize. But thousands of Miskito Indians were stranded along a swampy coastline where the Category 4 storm was expected to make landfall.

Grupo Taca Airlines provided special free flights to the mainland, quickly touching down and taking off again to scoop up more tourists. Some 1,000 people were evacuated from the Honduran island of Roatan, popular for its pristine reefs and diving resorts. Another 1,000 were removed from low-lying coastal areas and smaller islands.

"I'm very disappointed," scuba diver Bob Shearer, 43, of Butler, Pa., said at the airport in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. "I only got seven dives in. I hope they didn't jump the gun too soon."

Felix's top winds weakened slightly to 135 mph as it headed west, but forecasters warned that it could strengthen again before landfall along the Miskito Coast early Tuesday. From there, it was projected to rake northern Honduras, slam into southern Belize on Wednesday and then cut across northern Guatemala and southern Mexico, well south of Texas.

A storm surge of more than 18 feet above normal tides could devastate Indian communities along the Miskito Coast, a swampy, isolated region straddling the Honduras-Nicaragua border where thousands live in wooden shacks, get around on canoes and subsist on fish, beans, rice, cassava and plantains.

"There's nowhere to go here," said teacher Sodeida Rodriguez, 26, who was hunkering down in a concrete shelter.

The only path to safety is up rivers and across lakes that are too shallow for regular boats, but many lack gasoline for long journeys. Provincial health official Efrain Burgos said shelters were being prepared, and medicine and sanitation kits were being brought in, but that 18,000 people must find their own way to higher ground.

"We're asking the people who are on the coasts to find a way to safer areas, because we don't have the capability to transport so many people," he said. "The houses are made of wood. They're going to be completely swept away. They're not safe."

The storm was following the same path as 1998's Hurricane Mitch, a sluggish storm that stalled for a week over Central America, killing nearly 11,000 people. But Felix was expected to maintain a much more rapid pace.

By Monday afternoon, crashing waves reached 15 feet higher than normal on Honduras' coast, but there was no rain yet.

"We are ready to face an eventual tragedy," said Roatan fire chief Douglas Fajardo.

Most tourists took the free flights out, but locals prepared to ride out the storm.

"We know it's a tremendous hurricane that's coming," said real estate worker Estella Marazzito.

A U.S. CH-47 Chinook helicopter from the Soto Cano Air Base on Honduras evacuated 19 Americans - tourists and members of the military - from Roatan to the city of La Ceiba, Honduras, the U.S. Southern Command said.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Felix could dump up to 12 inches of rain in isolated areas. In the highland capital of Tegucigalpa, more than 100 miles inland, authorities cleared vendors from markets prone to flooding.

Across the border in Belize City, skies grew increasingly cloudy and winds kicked up as residents boarded windows and lined up for gas. Tourists competed for the last seats on flights to Atlanta and Miami. Police went door-to-door forcing evacuations. Liquor sales were banned, and stores were running out supplies.

"I just wish they had more airplanes to take care of everyone who has to leave," said Atlanta, Georgia, resident Mitzi Carr, 48, who cut short her weeklong vacation on Hatchet Caye.

Belize is still cleaning up from last month's Hurricane Dean, which killed 28 people as plowed through the Caribbean and slammed into Mexico as a Category 5 storm. Dean damaged crops everywhere it passed, including an estimated $100 million in Belize alone.

Erol Semplis, 54, helped a friend board up his house in Belize City, before heading to his own house to do the same. He planned to leave with his girlfriend later Monday.

"A lot of people take chances with their lives," he said.

Authorities said police will work overtime to ensure there is no looting and they had prepared buses in case there is a mandatory evacation.

Carlo Scaramello, World Food Program representative in El Salvador, said the U.N. agency is ready to send food to any Central American country affected by Felix.

Over the weekend, Felix toppled trees, flooded homes and forced tourists indoors on the Dutch islands of Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire, but caused little damage. It then grew to a Category 5 storm Monday before losing a bit of its punch.

This is only the fourth Atlantic hurricane season since 1886 with more than one Category 5 hurricane, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Only 31 such storms have been recorded in the Atlantic, including eight in the last five seasons.

If Felix regains Category 5 winds before striking land, it would be the first time in recorded history that two such killer storms have made landfall in the same season, hurricane specialist Jamie Rhome said in Miami.

At 11 p.m. EDT, Felix remained a fearsome hurricane, though it had a very small wind field, with hurricane-force winds extending just 30 miles from its center. It was centered 145 miles east-southeast of the Nicaragua-Honduras border, moving west at 20 mph.

Off Mexico's Pacific coast, meanwhile, Tropical Storm Henriette was nearing hurricane strength on a path to hit the resort-studded tip of the Baja California Peninsula on Tuesday.

With maximum sustained winds near 70 mph, Henriette caused flooding and landslides that killed six people in Acapulco.

At 11 p.m. EDT, Henriette was centered 175 miles south-southeast of the tip of the peninsula, ushing waves up to 22 feet high as it moved northwest at 9 mph.

In Cabo San Lucas, civil defense chief Francisco Cota Marquez said authorities expected to evacuate at least 8,000 families to shelters in public buildings. Long lines formed at gas stations and grocery stores as residents began bracing for the storm. Police said an unidentified woman drowned in the high surf stirred up by the storm.

Sandra Klein, 49, waited in the airport to board a flight home to Irvine, Calif.

"I've been through a few hurricanes. It's miserable. I don't want anything to do with it," she said. "I like my creature comforts."

Dorothea Manns, 57, a county manager from Alta Loma, Calif., said she was happy the hurricane didn't arrive Monday. "Those waves were, like, tremendous."

She said she wanted to fill up her rental car at gas station but lines were too long.