Tourists flee from nearing hurricane

By Esteban Felix

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras – 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.

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 and get around on canoes.

“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 and leaving more than 8,000 missing, mostly in Honduras and Nicaragua. But Felix was expected to keep up its rapid pace of 21 mph, much faster than Mitch.

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.