Beta Upgraded to Category 2 Hurricane
PUERTO CABEZAS, Nicaragua (AP) _ A strengthening Hurricane Beta dumped heavy rains and whipped up winds on Central America’s Caribbean coast Saturday, prompting Nicaraguan troops to evacuate thousands of people from low-lying areas as Honduras declared a maximum state of alert.
Earlier on Saturday, the record 13th hurricane in the Atlantic this season lashed the tiny Caribbean island of Providencia with harsh winds, heavy rains and high surf.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm had been upgraded to a Category 2 hurricane with wind topping 105 mph and it was expected to strengthen further. Forecasters predicted Beta would reach the northeastern coast of Nicaragua near the border with Honduras early Sunday.
At 11 p.m. EDT, the hurricane center said Beta was located about 45 miles east-southeast of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua moving west at about 5 mph. It warned Beta could bring a storm surge up to 17 feet when it made landfall and said 10 to 15 inches of rain could fall in Central America.
The hurricane center said there was a chance Beta could become a dangerous Category 3 storm before it reaches the mainland Sunday. It was not expected to hit the United States.
Troops in Nicaragua 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 defense director, Lt. Col. Mario Perez Cassar.
The Civil Defense 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 canceled.
Residents of low-lying neighborhoods in Puerto Cabeza also were taken to provisional shelters on higher ground as heavy rains and wind began to batter the coast, flooding some low-lying neighborhoods. 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.
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, 215 miles north of the capital, Tegucigalpa, and officials also shut down the international airport there.
Maduro stressed the importance of being prepared to avoid a tragedy like the one caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. That storm stalled over Honduras with 120 mph winds, sweeping away bridges, flooding neighborhoods and killing thousands.
El Salvador went on preventive alert, although the storm is not projected at this point to reach the country.
The storm began pummeling the mountainous Colombian island of Providencia late Friday, tearing roofs off wooden homes and causing hundreds of people to move to brick shelters in the highlands. Electricity and telephone service were knocked out for the 5,000 people on the Manhattan-sized island.
Several people were slightly injured, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said. The calming news is that there were no fatalities,″ Uribe said Saturday in Bogota before boarding a plane for the region.
Colombia’s social welfare minister, Diego Palacio, told The Associated Press that several houses and a popular tourist footbridge were damaged, but there was little flooding. Phones and power remained off on the island, a former pirate outpost inhabited mostly by descendants of slaves who speak English as their first language. It lies about 125 miles off the Nicaraguan coast.
Beta was the 13th hurricane this year, more than any Atlantic season on record. This season has also seen 23 named storms, more than at any point since record-keeping began in 1851. The previous record of 21 was set in 1933.
Last week Tropical Storm Alpha formed, the first time a letter from the Greek alphabet has been used because the list of storm names was exhausted.
Hurricane Wilma, the most recent storm to hit the United States, caused widespread outages and gasoline shortages across Florida; and the U.S. Gulf Coast is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina, which caused chaos and devastation in New Orleans and surrounding areas in August.
Associated Press writers Filadelfo Aleman in Managua, Nicaragua, Freddy Cuevas in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Dan Molinski in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.