SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras - Planes shuttled tourists from island resorts in a desperate airlift yesterday 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. 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-lying coastal areas and smaller islands.
Felix's top winds weakened slightly to 135 miles per hour as it headed west, but forecasters warned that it could strengthen again before landfall along the Miskito Coast early today. From there, it was projected to rake northern Honduras, slam into southern Belize tomorrow, 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, get around in canoes and subsist on fish, beans, rice, and plantains.
"There's nowhere to go here," said teacher Sodeida Rodriguez, 26, who was in a concrete shelter.
The only path to safety is up rivers and across lakes that are too shallow for regular boats, but many residents lack gasoline for long journeys. Provincial health official Efrain Burgos said shelters were being prepared, but that 18,000 people must find their way to higher ground.
"The houses are made of wood. They're going to be completely swept away. They're not safe," he said.
Across the border in Belize City, skies grew increasingly cloudy and winds kicked up as residents boarded windows and lined up for gas. Tourists competed for the last seats on flights to Atlanta and Miami. Police went door-to-door forcing evacuations. Liquor sales were banned, and stores were running out of plywood and other supplies.
This is only the fourth Atlantic hurricane season since 1886 with more than one Category 5 hurricane, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Only 31 such storms have been recorded in the Atlantic, including eight in the last five seasons.
Off Mexico's Pacific coast, Tropical Storm Henriette was nearing hurricane strength on a path to the tip of the Baja California today.
With maximum sustained winds near 70 miles per hour, Henriette caused flooding and landslides that killed six people in Acapulco. Three died after a boulder fell on their home, and three after a landslide hit their house.