Category 5 Felix Hits Central America

Hurricane Felix 6:45am Satellite Image 07/09/04
Hurricane Felix strengthened into a Category 5 monster storm early Tuesday, forecasters said, and made landfall in extreme northeastern Nicaragua, an area that is home to thousands of stranded Miskito Indians. It's the first time in recorded history that two top-scale storms have come ashore in the same season.

"The wind is terrible. There's a roaring when it pulls the roofs off the houses," Lumberto Campbell, a local official in Puerto Cabezas, told Radio Ya. "There's no electricity because all the posts that hold up the cables have fallen down.

"The metal roofs come off like shaving knives and are sent flying against the trees and homes," he said before the line cut off.

Rogelio Flores, the head of protection civil for the affected area, said officials have received distress calls from three boats at sea with a total of 49 people on board. But there were no immediate reports of casualties.

He said more than 12,000 people had been evacuated. But many other Miskito Indians refused to leave low-lying areas and head to shelters set up in schools.

Meanwhile, off Mexico's Pacific coast, Tropical Storm Henriette strengthened into a hurricane, the National Hurricane Center said, with winds of 75 mph. It is on a path that would take it near or over Mexico's southern Baja Peninsula by Tuesday afternoon.

In the hours before Felix - which the National Hurricane Center said reached Category 5 - was to make landfall early Tuesday, Grupo Taca Airlines frantically airlifted tourists from the Honduran island of Roatan, popular for its pristine reefs and diving resorts.

"It'll be the mudslides and flash flooding which will be the biggest problem there," says CBS News meteorologist George Cullen.

About 1,000 people were taken off the island, including 19 Americans evacuated by a U.S. Chinook helicopter sent from the Soto Cano Air Base on mainland Honduras. Another 1,000 people were removed from low-lying coastal areas and smaller islands.

Bob Shearer, 54, from Butler, Pa., said he was disappointed his family's scuba diving trip to Roatan was cut short by the evacuation order. "I only got seven dives in. I hope they didn't jump the gun too soon," he said as he waited for a flight home in the San Pedro Sula airport.

Felix's top winds were at 160 mph as it headed west early Tuesday, and forecasters warned it could strengthen again before landfall along the Miskito Coast. 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.

Its massive storm surge could devastate Indian communities along the Miskito Coast, an isolated region straddling the Honduras-Nicaragua border where Miskito Indians live in wooden shacks, get around on canoes and subsist on fish, beans, rice, cassava and plantains. Thousands were stranded along the coast late Monday.

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 estimated that 18,000 people must find their own way to higher ground.

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.

"This is a smaller hurricane so we don't expect much rain but still, there's going to be problems over Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala," says CBS News weather analyst Bryan Norcross.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Felix could dump up to 12 inches of rain in isolated parts of northern Honduras and northeastern Nicaragua, possibly bringing flash floods and mudslides. As far away as the highland capital of Tegucigalpa, more than 100 miles inland, authorities cleared vendors from markets prone to flooding.

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.

This is only the fourth Atlantic hurricane season since 1886 with more than one Category 5 hurricane, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Only 31 such storms have been recorded in the Atlantic, including eight in the last five seasons.

"The Category 5s this year occurred for the same reason that we've had all this persistent rain in the middle of the country, persistent flooding, and extreme storminess in the upper Midwest: The weather pattern has been stuck," Norcross said on CBS News' The Early Show. "We've had exactly the same weather pattern twice. Two storms got in the same place twice in a part of the Caribbean where you have this extremely warm water and the fuel to make these hurricanes go."

At 8 a.m. EDT, Felix was centered on the coast of northeastern Nicaragua, near Punta Gorda, about 10 miles north-northeast of Puerto Cabezas. It was moving toward the west at about 16 mph, and will weaken as it moves over Nicaragua and Honduras.

Off Mexico's Pacific coast, meanwhile, Hurricane Henriette was on a path to hit the resort-studded tip of the Baja California Peninsula on Tuesday.

The hurricane center said it was expected to be near or over the southern Baja Peninsula by Tuesday afternoon or evening.

Earlier, Henriette caused flooding and landslides that killed six people in Acapulco. On Monday, police in Cabo San Lucas said high surf stirred up by Henriette led to the drowning of an unidentified woman.

Henriette "will hit Cabo today as category 1. That moisture will die out over Mexico. It will go up into the Southwest, probably New Mexico, may spread over Texas. It's going to go north and then veer to the right," Norcross says. "More than likely this is going to end up, what's left of it, in Texas."