PUERTO CABEZAS, Nicaragua – The death toll from Hurricane Felix neared 100 Thursday night as U.S., Honduran and Nicaraguan soldiers searched remote jungle beaches and the open sea for survivors and the dead. Villagers in canoes helped, paddling through waters thick with fallen trees.
Two days after the Category 5 storm hit, dozens more bodies were recovered along the Miskito coastline that stretches across the Nicaragua-Honduras border, many found floating in the sea, emergency officials said.
Abelino Cox, a spokesman for the Regional Emergency Committee, said the death toll from Felix had risen to at least 98. The previous toll was at least 65 dead.
The storm also destroyed the ethnic Zumo and Mayagna Indian community of Awastingni, located 55 miles northwest of Puerto Cabezas, Cox said. Fourteen people from there were missing.
"This is horrifying," said committee official Brooklin Rivera, who lives in the area.
Felix damaged or destroyed 8,000 houses in and around Puerto Cabezas and 18,000 Nicaraguans are living in shelters, civil defense officials said.
In Puerto Cabezas, about 500 people crowded onto a pier overlooking the beach where 13 bloated bodies had been laid out on black tarps after being pulled out of the sea. Some tried to rush down a small wooden stairway onto the beach but were held back by police.
Lucia Parista Mora, 43, whose nephew was lobster fishing when the hurricane hit, told The Associated Press that several hundred fishermen and female fish sellers were either on the three main cays off Puerto Cabezas or in boats fishing when the hurricane arrived Tuesday. They fear many more bodies will be found in the ocean.
"We want them to bring them back here," said Parista Mora. "Even if it is just bones, we want to see them."
Earlier Thursday, rescuers found at least 25 bodies floating in waters off Honduras' coast and another 32 people were still missing after their village was destroyed and the boats they fled on capsized. Many of the 52 survivors who washed ashore or were found clinging to debris were being treated for dehydration in the seaside Honduran village of Villeda Morales.
Rescue and aid was arriving slowly in the impoverished region, where descendants of Indians, European settlers and African slaves live in stilt homes on island reefs and in small hamlets, surviving by fishing and diving for lobster.
Interviewed by phone from the area, Honduran Col. Saul Orlando Coca told the AP that U.S. and Honduran military personnel were patrolling the sea and inlets with helicopters and boats while soldiers walked the shore on foot.
The ocean was filled with debris, preventing a rescue mission from going ashore at Sandy Bay, Nicaragua, the village where the eye of Felix made landfall with catastrophic 160 mph winds and a storm surge estimated at 18 feet above normal tides.
From a distance, rescue teams could see fallen palm trees, roofless concrete structures and wooden homes reduced to splinters at Sandy Bay. Women on the shore wept in anguish.
Food and fuel were scarce as emergency aid was airlifted into the hard-hit regional capital of Puerto Cabezas, a town difficult to reach even in good weather.
Throughout the region, people were short of food and fresh water. An AP photographer reached one isolated village where the only thing to drink was the water in fallen coconuts.
The Nicaraguan government said it would need at least $30 million to rebuild.
The U.S. Southern Command sent an amphibious warship, the USS Wasp, to help coordinate American relief efforts. Venezuela also sent aid, and 57 Cuban doctors and nurses already on medical missions along the Miskito coast pitched in.
Felix developed very quickly over the warm waters of the southern Caribbean, and Nicaragua posted a hurricane warning less than 24 hours before it hit the coast.
Officials had scrambled to notify the remote, autonomous region where many people have a long-standing mistrust of the Nicaraguan government. Few realized the storm would grow to a Category 5 hurricane so quickly, and some who were warned didn't believe it would be so dangerous.
By Thursday, Felix was nothing more than a steady rain in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, but swollen rivers and soggy, unstable mountainsides kept thousands of people from their homes in Central America.
In Honduras, officials said a 15-year-old was buried by mud while trying to repair a water line in Tegucigalpa, a 34-year-old man drowned in a ditch in El Progreso, and a pregnant woman in Tegucigalpa died when a river flooded. It wasn't immediately clear if the three deaths were included in the death toll of 98 provided by Cox.
The remnants of Henriette, meanwhile, dumped rain on Arizona and New Mexico. That hurricane hit Mexico on Tuesday near Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula and again on Wednesday near the port of Guaymas, before weakening over the Sonoran desert.
It left 10 dead, including a man who fell while trying to repair his roof. One woman drowned in high surf in Cabo San Lucas, and landslides buried six people in Acapulco as Henriette moved up the Pacific Coast.
Some 5,000 people woke up in Mexican shelters Thursday. San Carlos, a beach town near Guaymas packed with American retirees, was among those hit.
"Waves reached up to the boulevard," said resident Fatima Reyes, 23. "It blew away roofing, trees and signs."
Mexican navy Capt. Leopoldo Mendoza said a helicopter was searching the Bay of La Paz for a small boat missing since Tuesday in Henriette's high seas with two Mexicans and two Japanese citizens on board.