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Deadly Mitch Pounds Honduras

October 28, 1998

LA CEIBA, Honduras (AP) _ Hurricane Mitch paused in its whirl through the western Caribbean on Wednesday to punish Honduras with 120 mph winds, sweeping away bridges, flooding neighborhoods and killing at least 14 people.

Mitch was almost stationary over the Bay Islands, a Honduras tourist area popular with American scuba divers and beachcombers. According to unconfirmed reports, another 14 people died on the island of Guanaja just east of Roatan, which would raise the death toll to 28.

The storm was only 30 miles off the coast, and hurricane-force winds stretched 105 miles from the storm’s center. That meant the Honduran coast and a good portion of the interior was under hurricane conditions for more than a day.

At its peak Tuesday, Mitch was classified as the fourth-strongest Caribbean hurricane this century with 180 mph winds. By Wednesday afternoon, the 350-mile-wide storm still packed a punch, but its sustained winds were down to 120 mph.

The U.S. National Weather Service said only three Atlantic storms were stronger than Mitch at its peak: Gilbert in 1988, Allen in 1980 and the Labor Day hurricane of 1935.

The rainfall _ up to 25 inches in mountain areas _ began to take a toll. More than 50 rivers had overran their banks, and the government evacuated more than 45,000 people from low-lying areas, according to Col. Guillermo Pinel, chief of the National Emergency Committee.

Many towns were cut off by washed-out roads and downed bridges, and phone lines were severed on the Bay Islands, making it difficult to gauge the extent of the damage.

Both highways out of La Ceiba, a city of 40,000 people, were cut Wednesday. To the east, the Saopin bridge sagged into the water as the swollen river weakened its pillars. To the west, the Pico Bonito bridge was entirely washed away.

Electricity was out in the entire town, and the sea moved a half-block into town in some places.

Waves crashed against the walls of seafront discos and people waded through knee-deep water with furniture on their backs to flee flooded houses. In the Barrio Ingles shantytown, the ground was entirely covered in white foam from the surf, making it look like it had snowed.

Mario Hernandez was moving his chickens from his flooded shack to a friend’s house on higher ground. One of the 10 chickens had already drowned, and he planned to take it to a shelter to see if he could cook the bird.

``My little son didn’t let us sleep all night because he was so hungry,″ Hernandez said, gesturing toward 9-month-old Eugenio.

Honduran officials reported five deaths _ one in a collapsed house, two men electrocuted when they were blown off a roof and one man drowned in a swollen river. Another man was killed as he crossed a bridge on his bicycle; the river tore away the bridge with him on it.

In addition, Guanaja Island resident Tina Haylock, who was visiting Tegucigalpa, told Canal 5 television that she had talked to her family early Wednesday and they told her 14 people had died on the island. The report couldn’t be confirmed.

The Red Cross in neighboring Nicaragua said eight people died there in flooding from Mitch’s rains. In a statement, the organization blamed the deaths on the government, saying it ``hasn’t adopted the safety measures necessary for people to cross rivers.″

Mexican officials said a wave kicked up by the storm washed a Connecticut man off a catamaran south of Cancun on Monday, and he was presumed dead. He was identified as Robert Gates, 55, of Niantic.

Mexico declared an alert throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, evacuating thousands of residents and tourists from vulnerable beach resorts and cutting back on pumping oil from wells in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the Mexican resort of Cancun, 375 miles north of Honduras, American and other tourists formed long lines at the airport trying to leave before the storm arrived.

But as Mitch inched south, Cancun Mayor Rafael Lara Lara canceled the city’s emergency alert.

Belize City, Belize’s capital until 1961 when it was destroyed by Hurricane Hattie, was a ghost town. Most of its 75,000 residents had fled in cars buses comandeered by the government.

Police and soldiers patrolled the streets, and a few people wandered amid the boarded-up houses. The cable television company was broadcasting only the weather channel.

Freddy Sikaffy stayed behind with his wife to take care of his Hotel El Centro, which was closed. But he had stored up only enough food for a couple of days, and that was almost gone.

``We have some water, some bread and some tin stuff,″ he said. ``But we thought that by Wednesday the hurricane would be out of here.″

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