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Mitch Roars off Honduran Coast

October 28, 1998

LA CEIBA, Honduras (AP) _ Hurricane Mitch cut through the western Caribbean on Tuesday, pummeling coastal Honduras and Belize with driving rain and fierce winds that snapped trees and sent thousands of people fleeing for higher ground. At least 11 storm-related deaths were reported.

Honduran President Carlos Flores Facusse declared the highest state of alert and sent in troops to evacuate thousands of people from villages on the sparsely populated coast. Thousands more made their way to safer ground on their own.

Most of the population of Belize City fled inland in cars and government buses, while tourists rushed to find ways out of the Mexican resorts of Cancun and Cozumel.

Mexico’s state oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, announced it had cut crude oil output in the Gulf of Mexico in face of the hurricane threat.

At 10 p.m. EST, Mitch was 35 miles north of the Honduran coast _ about 80 miles northeast of this coastal city, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. Hurricane-force winds extended up to 60 miles from the center.

``Hurricane conditions are spreading onshore over Honduras and the adjacent Bay Islands,″ the center said. ``Ham radio reports indicate significant damage on the island of Roatan″ off the coast.

Winds dropped from 180 mph to near 140 mph, reducing Mitch from a Category 5 to a Category 4 storm, one category below the most powerful. But the 350-mile-wide storm remained very strong _ and dangerous.

Mitch appeared to have stalled late Tuesday after moving west-southwestward roughly parallel to the coast for much of the day. But the center said it was expected to resume a slow, generally westward movement on Wednesday.

The storm’s slow speed made the hurricane’s path especially unpredictable, forecasters said.

Forecasters earlier said the most likely track would carry Mitch into central Belize by early Thursday, though some models showed it could veer southwest, northwest or even northeast if it slows further.

``With that kind of range of possibilities, we’re not going to try to pin down anything about where it’s going,″ Beven said.

Earlier in the day, when Mitch’s 180 mph winds made it a Category 5 storm, the U.S. National Weather Service said only three Atlantic storms were stronger _ Gilbert in 1988, Allen in 1980 and the Labor Day hurricane of 1935.

Strong winds bent palm trees along the Honduran coast Tuesday, and heavy rain caused at least four rivers to overflow their banks. The entire coast of Honduras was under a hurricane warning, and up to 20 inches of rain was forecast in mountainous areas.

The government reported at least three deaths. The Red Cross in neighboring Nicaragua said eight people died there due to flooding due to Mitch’s rains.

In La Ceiba, on the western Honduran coast, residents fled to shelters set up in schools and fire stations on higher ground. The area has the sea to the north, the Cangrejal River to the east and a creek to the west.

Fisherman Manuel Padilla said he wanted to evacuate with his three children but authorities had not told him where the shelters were located.

``Nobody has come to see us,″ he complained. ``They’ve forgotten us.″

Still, hundreds of people waded through knee-deep waters to safety. At one fire station shelter, about 150 people huddled in the damp, with no dry blankets or other protection. Some brought pets, including five parrots.

Blanca Almeida Ramirez, 22, said she and her three children fled early Tuesday when water began to seep into her wooden house. ``The wood is all rotten inside,″ she said. ``I couldn’t stay any longer.″

The head of the Honduran armed forces, Gen. Mario Hung Pacheco, said 5,000 soldiers were deployed to help victims of the storm.

Five villages in the northeastern province of Gracias a Dios were cut off by flooding, but police evacuated all 2,000 residents before the rivers rose, said national police chief Col. Anael Perez. Two other villages were cut off by fallen trees.

In El Progreso, 100 miles north of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, the army evacuated more than 5,000 people who live in low-lying banana plantations along the Ulua River, said resident Nolly Soliman.

Two brothers, Misael and Rainel Juares, were electrocuted Monday when they tried to take a television antenna down from their roof in the village of Jutiapa, near La Ceiba.

Early Tuesday, the storm passed almost directly over the tiny Swan Islands, Honduran outposts used in the 1980s as a U.S. radar station and radio base for broadcasts to Cuba. Authorities said the military base lost its roof, but the five soldiers posted there were unhurt because they took refuge in nearby caves.

Belize residents weren’t taking any chances. Stores and banks were closed in Belize City and almost all the city’s 75,000 residents were fleeing by car or bus to higher ground.

A huge traffic jam _ and a heavy rain _ slowed drivers headed to Belmopan, the Belizean capital built after Belize City itself was destroyed by Hurricane Hattie in 1961.

All gas stations in Belize City had run out of gasoline, but the government commandeered all buses in the country to run 24 hours a day, ferrying people inland for free.

The government also ordered the total evacuation of Ambergris Cay, an island in the north of the country that is home to many Americans and Europeans. Residents were fleeing on water taxis and military planes, authorities said.

And farther north in Mexico, tourists in Cancun and Cozumel prepared for the worst. Long lines formed at the airport and authorities made plans to evacuate tens of thousands of tourists if the hurricane gets closer.

Vacationer Allison Chapman of North Devon, England, said she had been waiting at the airport for five hours.

``We’re No. 12 on the standby list _ to anywhere,″ she said.

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