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Archive for Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Two hurricanes pummel Central American coasts

September 5, 2007

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— Felix walloped Central America's remote Miskito coastline and Henriette slammed into resorts on the tip of Baja California as a record-setting hurricane season got even wilder Tuesday with twin storms making landfall on the same day.

Felix caused at least three deaths and damaged thousands of homes in Nicaragua. It's rains posed a danger to inland villages lying in flood-prone mountain valleys and to urban shantytowns susceptible to mudslides.

The monstrous storm roared ashore before dawn as a Category 5 tempest along Nicaragua's remote northeast corner.

Winds of 160 mph slammed the city of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, peeling roofs off shelters and a police station, knocking down electric poles and destroying or damaging some 5,000 homes - many of them made of wood with roofs of corrugated metal or palm branches, according to Lt. Col. Samuel Perez, Nicaragua's deputy head of civil defense.

Perez said at least three died: a man drowned when his boat capsized, a woman was killed when a tree fell on her house and a baby died when the storm prevented medical attention.

Felix weakened steadily throughout the day and was downgraded to a tropical storm shortly after nightfall. Still, forecasters worried about damage inland over Honduras and Guatemala. Up to 25 inches of rain was expected to drench the mountain capitals of Tegucigalpa and Guatemala City, where shantytowns cling precariously to hillsides.

At 10 p.m. CDT, Felix's winds had dropped to 50 mph and was centered 100 miles east of Tegucigalpa, moving westward at 12 mph, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. It was expected to continue moving over Honduras early Wednesday.

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.

At 10 p.m. CDT, 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 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.

Felix was the 31st Category 5 hurricane seen in the Atlantic since record-keeping began in 1886 - and the eighth in the last five seasons. Some meteorologists say human-caused increases in sea surface temperatures are making storms stronger, while others say the numbers are up because new technology allows us to measure their intensity better.

"Today hurricanes are becoming increasingly violent. For example, water from the Carribean, the ocean, is two degrees hotter than before," Mexican President Felipe Calderon said Tuesday, siding with those who blame climate-change. "This makes steam rise off the ocean more quickly: Hurricanes form faster and are more violent."

Tuesday was historic: It was the first time on record that two Category 5 Atlantic hurricanes made landfall in the same year, with Felix coming two weeks after Hurricane Dean slammed into southern Mexico. And Atlantic and Pacific hurricanes had never made landfall on the same date.

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