July 31, 2014

Elyria
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Powerful Felix and Henriette slam into Mexico

CABO SAN LUCAS, Mexico — 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.

While weakening rapidly, Felix’s rains posed a danger to inland villages lying in flood-prone mountain valleys and to urban shantytowns susceptible to mudslides.

Felix roared ashore before dawn as a Category 5 storm along Nicaragua’s remote northeast corner — an isolated, swampy jungle where people get around mainly by canoe. The 160 mph winds peeled roofs off shelters and a police station, knocked down electric poles and stripped humble homes to a few walls.

“The metal roofs are coming off like straight razors and flying against the trees and homes,” Lumberto Campbell, a local official in Puerto Cabezas, near Felix’s landfall, told Radio Ya shortly before his phone line went dead. Emergency official Samuel Perez said most of the port’s buildings were damaged and the dock was destroyed, although there were no reports of deaths.

By late afternoon, Felix had weakened to a Category 1 storm with winds of 80 mph. But forecasters were still worried that the tempest would do great 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.

Towns across Honduras were flooding, and residents waded through waist-deep, garbage-strewn water in La Ceiba, on the northern coast.

In 1998, Hurricane Mitch parked over the same region for days, causing deadly flooding and mudslides that killed nearly 11,000 people and left more than 8,000 missing.

“The major concern now shifts to the threat of torrential rains over the mountains of Central America,” said senior hurricane specialist Richard Pasch at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

The Honduran government was draining water from behind dams in an attempt to reduce the flooding danger, and 10,000 people were being evacuated from high-risk areas of the capital, mostly from poor neighborhoods and street markets that ring the city.

“If they don’t do it voluntarily, we will force them,” Tegucigalpa Mayor Ricardo Alvarez said. “We have 500 soldiers and 200 police for just that purpose.”

At 5 p.m. EDT, Felix’s center was 110 miles west of Puerto Cabezas, moving westward at nearly 14 mph toward Honduras, the U.S. Hurricane Center said.

In the Pacific, Henriette’s top winds increased to 85 mph and 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 5 p.m. EDT, Henriette’s eye was 25 miles inland over the peninsula, on a path to drench Mexico’s northern deserts and then drop an inch or two of rain on Arizona and New Mexico in the Southwest on Thursday night. The Mexican government declared a state of emergency in southern Baja California.

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. In Guatemala, presidential elections were still scheduled for Sunday, but authorities prepared supplies and equipment for heavy rains and flooding from Felix. In Honduras, schools were closed and 11,000 soldiers went on alert as Tegucigalpa residents emptied supermarket shelves and waited in long lines for gas.

“I’ve been standing in lines for two days at different places to buy food and home supplies,” said housewife Cristina Segura. In the Nicaraguan mining town of Bonanza, 1,000 refugees crowded into 16 shelters. Mayor Maximo Sevilla said most roads were washed out or blocked by debris.

“We are cut off and being beaten by Hurricane Felix,” Sevilla told The Associated Press by phone, pleading for help from emergency officials.

As soon as Felix moved inland, the Nicaraguan army sent in a planeload of soldiers, life jackets and building materials, joining 700 troops patrolling against looting and clearing debris.

Tuesday was historic for two reasons: 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, according to records that began in 1949. However, at 5 a.m. on Aug. 24, 1992, Hurricane Andrew devastated southern Florida 23 hours after Lester hit Mexico’s Baja California, the Hurricane Center said.

“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.”

Dr. Chris Landsea, science operations officer at the National Hurricane Center, agreed that global warming is a factor — but a very small one.

“All of the studies suggest that by the end of this century, hurricanes may become stronger by five percent because of global warming. So a 100-miles-per-hour hurricane would be 105 miles per hour,” he said. “Most of what we’re seeing is natural fluctuations.”

Henriette’s leading edge brought driving rain and 15-foot waves that sent plumes of whitewater 30 feet high at the main Cabo San Lucas marina. Waves also washed away sand and licked at the walls of beachfront hotels. Catamarans crashed against their moorings and palm trees bent in the wind.

Cynthia White, a 64-year-old retiree from Fort Myers, Fla., watched waves nearly cover the resort’s famous rock arch after her deep-sea fishing trip was canceled.

“We’re Florida tourists, so we know what it’s about,” White said. “It didn’t ruin the vacation, but it ain’t helping the case.” Henriette claimed seven lives even before it strengthened into a hurricane.

Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean Cruises changed itineraries for six cruises to avoid ports in the area.