Hurricane Beta Heads for Central America

A strengthening Hurricane Beta (search) headed for Central America's Caribbean coast Saturday after lashing the small Colombian island of Providencia with harsh winds, heavy rains and high surf.

Nicaraguan troops evacuated thousands of people from low-lying areas as forecasters predicted the Category 1 hurricane could become a Category 3 storm before reaching the mainland Sunday, near the border between Nicaragua and Honduras. It was not expected to hit the United States.

In Honduras (search), intense wind and rain were hitting the coast and President Ricardo Maduro declared a maximum state of alert. He reminded people of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which stalled over Honduras with 120 mph winds, sweeping away bridges, flooding neighborhoods and killing thousands.

Only one person was reported injured on Providencia during the passing of Beta, the record 13th hurricane of this year's Atlantic storm season.

Just before 2 p.m. EDT, the National Hurricane Center (search) said the storm was about 85 miles east of the Nicaraguan coastal town of Puerto Cabezas moving westward at about 5 mph. Its maximum sustained winds were around 90 mph.

The storm began pummeling mountainous Providencia late Friday, tearing roofs off wooden homes and causing hundreds of people to move to brick shelters in the highlands. Electricity and telephone service were knocked out for the 5,000 people on the Manhattan-sized island.

Colombia's social welfare minister, Diego Palacio, flew over the island in a small plane and spoke to officials after the storm.

Palacio told The Associated Press there was only one minor injury, a man whose face was cut by flying debris. He said several houses and a popular tourist footbridge were damaged, but there was little flooding. Phones and power remained off.

A Colombian frigate loaded with emergency supplies was due to arrive later Friday at the island, a former pirate outpost inhabited mostly by descendants of slaves who speak English as their first language. It lies about 125 miles off the Nicaraguan coast.

In Nicaragua, some 8,000 people in low-lying coastal communities, mainly Indians, moved into schools and a hospital evacuated patients. People lined up at shops to buy supplies as strong winds and heavy rain buffeted Puerto Cabezas, where 32,000 residents prepared for the storm.

The National Hurricane Center warned that Beta could bring a storm surge up to 13 feet when it made landfall and said 10 to 15 inches of rain could fall in Central America.

"We can't do anything about damage to property," said Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos. "The important thing is to save lives."

In Honduras, authorities evacuated more than 50 people because of flooding from heavy rain at Gracias a Dios, a town on the border with Nicaragua. Officials closed schools and the airport at La Ceiba, 215 miles north of the capital, Tegucigalpa.

Maduro urged Hondurans to get ready, stressing the importance of being prepared to avoid a tragedy like that which occurred during Hurricane Mitch seven years ago.

Beta was the 13th hurricane this year, more than any Atlantic season on record. This season has also seen 23 named storms, more than at any point since record-keeping began in 1851. The previous record of 21 was set in 1933.

Last week Tropical Storm Alpha formed, the first time a letter from the Greek alphabet has been used because the list of storm names was exhausted.

Hurricane Wilma, the most recent storm to hit the United States, caused widespread outages and gasoline shortages across Florida; and the U.S. Gulf Coast is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina, which caused chaos and devastation in New Orleans and surrounding areas in August.