CABO SAN LUCAS, Mexico – Doctors treated storm casualties in a makeshift clinic Wednesday after powerful Hurricane Felix flooded their hospital and wrecked villages on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast. The death toll rose to at least 18 with dozens more missing.
Far to the northwest, Hurricane Henriette plowed into Mexico for a second time in two days near the port city of Guaymas with top sustained winds of 75 mph (120 mph) and quickly weakened into a tropical storm as it headed inland. Seven deaths were reported from the Pacific storm, which hit Baja California on Tuesday.
Schools and ports were closed and residents evacuated low-lying areas on Mexico's mainland, but the storm was expected to weaken quickly over the desert before dumping a few inches of rain Thursday on New Mexico.
Felix came ashore Tuesday as a Category 5 storm, killing at least 18 people across Nicaragua, said Alvaro Rivas, a spokesman for Nicaragua's Civil Defense Department. He said at least 10 people were missing in and around Puerto Cabezas and more than 50 in the Matagalpa province in the north.
Felix broke up Wednesday over the mountains of Central America but heavy rains continued across avalanche-prone areas.
Among the missing were four fishermen whose small sailboat sank while Felix's center was passing overhead. Fernando Pereira, 24, said he clung to a piece of wood for 12 hours, despite a dislocated shoulder, and washed ashore at Sandy Bay, only hours after Felix made landfall there. He has not seen his friends since.
"I felt horrible," he said. "I was drinking salt water, and I thought I was going to die."
Others were caught in the sea as well — Jelivaro Climax, 22, said he swam through enormous waves, finally reaching shore.
"Lightning flashed through a pitch black sky," he said. "I don't know how I survived. I swam with everything I had, and I was sure the sea would take me."
Felix barreled through vulnerable, low-lying settlements of Nicaragua's Miskito Indians.
With about 150,000 people scattered in small hamlets in the swampy jungle, the Miskitos are the largest Indian group in Nicaragua, descendants of Indians, European settlers and African slaves who live semiautonomously, similar to people on U.S. Indian reservations. Their primitive paradise of coconut groves and wooden shacks is reachable only by air or flat-bottom boats, even in good weather. Big storms leave them even more isolated and desperate for help.
Johana Aliberto Maquiave, 36, was trying to get back to her home in the village of Sandy Bay, where the eye of the storm hit.
"I want to know what happened to my three children," she said, fighting tears. "The poor kids stayed with their dad. I am here with nothing. I came on Sunday to buy food."
German Miranda, a photographer with the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa, traveled to Sandy Bay on a Nicaraguan navy boat Wednesday and said the areas was "literally blown away."
"We couldn't disembark because there was a huge number of fallen trees in the sea, but we could see Miskito women crying for their men who had headed out to sea to fish in their tiny boats before the storm hit and hadn't returned," Miranda told The Associated Press.
Sandy Bay is about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Puerto Cabezas and is made up of about 10 small Miskito communities.
The view from a flight over Sandy Bay showed palm tree after palm tree felled like stalks of grass, homes without roofs and building debris scattered across the tropical landscape.
Felix wiped out crops and damaged most of the food and emergency supplies that had been flown in before the storm. On Wednesday, it was hard to find a building that was not damaged. Even Puerto Cabezas' hospital filled with water, and doctors attended to the injured at a makeshift medical clinic.
Reaching remote villages was difficult — there was not enough fuel for boats to make long journeys, and the storm snapped steel cables that guided a small ferry that carried people and cars from Puerto Cabezas to the village of Wawahum.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega flew over the area to survey the damage. He said Venezuela and U.S. governments offered aid, and that Cuban doctors were already on the ground. Nicaragua's military airlifted sheets, mattresses, food and first aid.
Residents hacked at fallen trees with machetes, trying to free the remains of their humble homes. There was very little electricity, running water, or telephone service.
Larry Hansack, 38, gazed at a sea littered with splintered wood and shattered tin, wondering about his nephew, a fisherman who disappeared at sea.
"There's no one to help me, and everything is disorganized," he said.
Teresa Flores, 34, rode out the storm at a neighbor's house after her wooden home collapsed, injuring her husband and her 3-year-old son. Looters later took what was left.
"They took the clothes, even the barrels where we keep water," she said. "Now we have nothing to drink. We lost all our food, the television set, the microwave, even the toilet. Nothing works. We are pretty much in the street."
At one point during the storm, she tried to check on her home, but "I took a few steps and couldn't move forward. The wind said 'no."'
The remains of Felix were still dumping rain Wednesday on Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, and thousands of evacuees anxiously stayed away from shaky hillside slums and swollen rivers.
Many had feared a repeat of the 1998 nightmare of Hurricane Mitch, which parked over Central America for days, causing flooding and mudslides that killed nearly 11,000 people and left more than 8,000 missing.
In Mexico, Henriette swept across Baja California then over the Gulf of California before reaching land before making landfall Wednesday evening near Guaymas, the U.S. Hurricane Center said.
At 11 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT), Henriette was centered 35 kilometers (20 miles) south-southeast of Hermosillo, Mexico, and was moving northward at 24 kph (15 mph), the Miami-based center said. It had maximum sustained winds of 100 kph (65 mph).
Among the coastal communities getting drenched was San Carlos, a beach town packed with American retirees next to the port city of Guaymas.
"It's deadly — the waves reached up to the boulevard," said Fatima Reyes, 23, of San Carlos. "It blew away roofing, trees and signs."
Mexican navy Capt. Leopoldo Mendoza said a navy helicopter was searching the Bay of La Paz for a small boat that went missing Tuesday amid high seas, wind and rain caused by Henriette. He said two Mexicans and two Japanese nationals were on board.