TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people fled low-lying areas on Central America’s Caribbean coast on Monday to escape the powerful winds and torrential rains of approaching Hurricane Felix.
The highly dangerous Category 4 storm, due to make landfall on Tuesday morning, charged toward Nicaragua and Honduras with top sustained winds of 135 mph (215 kph), provoking fears of a repeat of Hurricane Mitch, which killed some 10,000 people in Central America in 1998.
“We are faced with a very serious threat to lives and property. The most important thing is that people pay heed to the call for evacuation so that we don’t have to count bodies later,” said Marco Burgos, head of Honduras’ civil protection agency.
Hundreds of tourists flew to the Honduran mainland from beach and diving resorts on the Bay Islands.
Emergency services sailed Miskito Indians out of vulnerable, sparsely populated, coastal areas in Honduras, and Nicaragua said it would evacuate thousands more on its side of the swampy border area, dotted with lagoons and crocodile-infested rivers.
The Miskitos, who traditionally fish for turtles, formed a British protectorate until the 19th century. More than 35,000 of them live in Honduras, and over 100,000 in Nicaragua.
Felix, the second hurricane of the 2007 Atlantic season, had been a top-ranked Category 5 storm like last month’s Hurricane Dean, which killed 27 people in the Caribbean and Mexico.
A Category 4 is also a major storm, capable of extensive damage and heavy flooding. Hurricane Katrina, one of the most devastating natural disasters in U.S. history, was a Category 3 when it made landfall near New Orleans in 2005.
Category 5 hurricanes are considered rare. But there were four in the 2005 Atlantic season, and more of the potent storms this year could boost claims that global warming may produce stronger tropical cyclones.
Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at weather Web site weatherunderground.com, said Felix had set a speed record by taking just 51 hours to grow from a tropical depression to the Category 5 storm it became on Sunday.
Also on Monday, Tropical Storm Henriette headed across the eastern Pacific toward Mexico’s Baja California peninsula at near hurricane strength after killing six people in the resort city of Acapulco during the weekend.
U.S. vacationers in Baja California were unfazed.
“If it’s not really big it could be fun. It might be exciting,” said Radek Kadoun, from Orange County, California.
London coffee futures ended higher, fueled by speculative buying on concern Felix might damage arabica coffee growing areas in Central America.
Memories of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 still strike fear into Honduras, one of the poor Central American countries worst hit. Some 10,000 people died in the region in mudslides and flooding.
“Besides asking God to prevent a catastrophe, we are buying water, food and medicine and boarding up windows,” said Silvia Sierra, a resident of Roatan island off the Honduran coast.
In 1974, Hurricane Fifi killed up to 8,000 people in Honduras after grazing its Caribbean coast and dumping rain on the northern mountains.
Felix was about 250 miles east of Cabo Gracias a Dios on the northern part of the border between Nicaragua and Honduras and speeding westward, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
It was expected to smack into the border area and then hit southern Belize and move through the Peten jungle region of Guatemala and into southern Mexico.
Whether Felix would be able to re-emerge over the Bay of Campeche, where Mexico has its major offshore oil fields, and strengthen again in the Gulf of Mexico was unclear.
The U.S. energy industry, skittish about storms since hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 toppled rigs, cut pipelines and flooded refineries, was monitoring Felix carefully.
But companies said they had yet to evacuate platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, where a third of U.S. domestic crude is produced and 15 percent of its natural gas.
Additional reporting by Ivan Castro in Managua, and Michael Christie in Miami
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