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Stranded Miskito Indians brace for hurricane

September 04, 2007|From the Associated Press

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 come ashore today.

Grupo Taca airlines provided special free flights to the mainland, quickly touching down and taking off again to scoop up tourists. About 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 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. From there, it was projected to rake northern Honduras, hit southern Belize on Wednesday and then cut across northern Guatemala and southern Mexico.

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 Honduran-Nicaraguan border where thousands live in wooden shacks, get around in 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. Provincial health official Efrain Burgos said shelters were being prepared, and medicine and sanitation kits were being brought in, but that 18,000 people would have to 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. Felix was expected to maintain a much more rapid pace.

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.

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 today.

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

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