LA CEIBA, Honduras – Hurricane Felix slammed into Nicaragua's Miskito Coast as a record-setting Category 5 storm Tuesday, whipping metal rooftops through the air like razors and forcing thousands to flee.
"The winds are horrible," Red Cross official Claudio Vanegas said by phone from the Nicaraguan town of Puerto Cabezas shortly after Felix struck land nearby with 160 mph winds. "They send roofs flying through the air, so we aren't going outside because it is too dangerous."
Felix landed around dawn, destroying many homes. "There are some that are nothing more than a few remaing walls," he said.
Only two weeks earlier, Hurricane Dean struck Mexico further up the Caribbean coast. Never before in recorded hurricane history have two Category 5 Atlantic hurricanes made landfall in the same year. Only 31 Category 5 storms have been seen in the Atlantic since record-keeping began in 1886, including eight in the last five seasons.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Henriette roared into Mexico's Baja California peninsula. The eye of the storm struck Los Cabos at around 4 p.m. EDT (2 p.m. local time), said Daniel Brown, a specialist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Atlantic and Pacific hurricanes making landfall on the same day is unprecedented, according to National Hurricane Center records dating back to 1949.
As Felix roared inland, its winds weakened to 100 mph. Forecasters said the storm was on a path to drench central Honduras and Guatemala before passing as a weakened tropical storm over Mexico's Tehuantepec Peninsula.
"The major concern now shifts to the threat of torrential rains over the mountains of Central America. Isolated maximum totals of 25 inches are possible. Persons living in flood-prone areas should take all precautions to protect life and property," said senior hurricane specialist Richard Pasch at the Hurricane Center in Miami.
In Nicaragua's remote northeast corner, more than 12,000 people were evacuated just ahead of Felix's landfall, including from a local hospital, but some refused to leave vulnerable coastal communities, and distress calls were received from three boats with a total of 49 people on board, civil defense official Rogelio Flores said.
In neighboring Honduras, about 5,000 residents and 3,000 tourists were evacuated from offshore islands just before Felix hit. Grupo Taca Airlines airlifted tourists from Roatan, popular for its pristine reefs and diving resorts, and a U.S. Chinook helicopter evacuated 19 Americans who were visiting the island, according to the U.S. Southern Command.
"I only got seven dives in. I hope they didn't jump the gun too soon," said Bob Shearer, 54, of Butler, Pa., who was disappointed his family's scuba-diving trip was cut short.
Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean Cruises changed itineraries for a total of six cruises to avoid ports in the area.
Phones and power were out in much of the Miskito Coast, making it difficult to find out what was happening in the remote, swampy area where many people get around on canoes. Radio reports said a Catholic church in Puerto Cabezas was destroyed by winds.
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Rogelio Perez, a local emergency official, said the army was preparing to fly over the area and assess damage. However, emergency officials said they had no immediate reports of victims, and that most people in low-lying areas had been moved to shelters on higher ground.
"Some refused to leave their homes, but most are safe," Vanegas said.
The only path to safety for many of those Indians was up rivers and across lakes that are too shallow for regular boats, and the damaging winds and floods could wipe out their small crops of beans, rice, cassava and plantains.
Felix was following a similar path to 1998's Hurricane Mitch, a sluggish storm that stalled for a week over Central America, killing nearly 11,000 people and leaving more than 8,000 missing, mostly in Honduras and Nicaragua.
In the highland capital of Tegucigalpa, more than 100 miles inland, authorities cleared vendors from markets prone to flooding.
In Honduras' seaside resort of La Ceiba, residents spent the night reinforcing flimsy house walls with plywood and sandbags.
"It's going to be strong, but we have faith that Christ will protect us," said 37-year-old housewife Sandra Hernandez, watching satellite images of the storm on television.