COMAYAGUA, Honduras – In some ways, the danger was just beginning.
Hurricane Felix – already deadly, already a record-book storm – moved inland Tuesday night. Its Category 5 wind diminished rapidly, but its rain did not. Relentless torrents swamped cities and villages tucked into Central America’s mountains and valleys.
More than 1,600 miles away in the Pacific, a second and much weaker hurricane, Henriette, struck the resort city of San Jose del Cabo on the southern tip of Baja California on Tuesday. The center of Henriette’s eye reached the Baja mainland Tuesday afternoon about six miles east of San Jose del Cabo’s downtown.
Rain, slides feared
Felix caused at least three deaths. Two people, one of them an 8-year-old girl, died in Nicaragua, and one man was killed in Honduras, according to early, fragmentary reports. A variety of ominous but unconfirmed accounts said scores were missing at sea.
The confirmed toll seemed certain to rise as information arrived from remote regions. Search and rescue teams could not reach most areas Tuesday night.
“This is a major disaster,” said Conor Walsh, director of Catholic Relief Services in Nicaragua.
It was a day that began with Felix’s core, accompanied by an 18-foot wall of water, drilling into extreme northeastern Nicaragua about 10 miles north-northeast of Puerto Cabezas, a Mosquito Coast town said to be in ruin and flooded Tuesday night.
The storm’s winds reached 160 mph, racing around an eye so perfectly formed and distinct that it could be seen on satellite photos.
Some indigenous people, with no other option, apparently sought shelter in shallow trenches, covering themselves with animal skins or palm fronds, according to Luigi Lotto, a relief worker in the first-hit Mosquito Coast area of Honduras and Nicaragua.
The screaming wind stripped roofs off countless buildings – including some shelters. The battering surf destroyed docks and other structures. The slanting rain washed away roads and bridges and pooled into waist-deep floods – and more rain kept falling.
Today, Felix’s path will carry it and its wet remnants through Honduras, Guatemala, portions of Mexico and other parts of Central America. Up to 25 inches of rain was expected to drench the mountain capitals of Tegucigalpa and Guatemala City.
“Let’s prepare for the worst,” said Ricardo Alvarez, the mayor of Tegucigalpa, a capital city of 300,000 people who live in a topographical bowl, surrounded by mountains. “Every citizen must be ready to become a life saver.”
Though Felix’s winds faded rapidly as the storm passed over the mountains of Nicaragua and Honduras, its abundant rain covered a vast area susceptible to floods and mudslides.
Worse, its forward speed slowed, giving its rain-laden clouds more time to linger over cities, towns, villages and – most worrisome of all – mountains and valleys.
In the past, hurricanes with similar reservoirs of rain have killed thousands in Honduras and elsewhere in Central America.
“The major concern now shifts to the threat of torrential rains over the mountains of Central America,” said Richard Pasch, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center near Miami.
Henriette crosses Baja
In the Pacific, Henriette’s top winds increased to 85 mph as it made landfall just after 2 p.m. on the southern tip of Baja, a resort area popular with Hollywood stars and sports fishermen.
Few tourists or residents had expected much trouble, but they awoke Tuesday to dangerous winds, closed airports and forecasts of a direct hit.
“I’ve been hearing it from the wife, coming to Cabo during the hurricane season,” said Derek Dunlap, a 45-year-old engineer from San Francisco. “I was going to roll the dice, and, well, here we go.”
Fifteen-foot waves chewed away beaches, crashed against seawalls at beachfront hotels and bashed catamarans against their moorings.
At 8 p.m. PDT, Henriette’s sustained winds dropped to 75 mph as it crossed the Baja California peninsula and emerged over the Gulf of California headed toward the mainland. Its center was 125 miles east of La Paz, Mexico, and it was forecast to reach mainland Mexico within 24 hours and then drop an inch or two of rain on Arizona and New Mexico on Thursday night. The Mexican government declared a state of emergency in southern Baja California. The storm claimed seven lives even before it strengthened into a hurricane.