Hurricane Joan churned toward Central America with 120 m.p.h. winds Wednesday and forced thousands to evacuate coastal areas after it left 15 people dead in Colombia.
“It will hit Nicaragua or Costa Rica if it keeps on this track, but there will also be heavy rainfall in Panama,” said forecaster Max Mayfield at the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Fla.
He said the eye of the storm probably would hit the coast early Friday and that mountainous areas could suffer flash flooding and mudslides in the coming days.
Rainfall of 5 to 10 inches was forecast for the storm’s path. The hurricane center said parts of Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua might get even heavier rains.
The Colombian islands of San Andres, Albuquerque and Providencia were under a hurricane warning, and a watch was posted for the Caribbean coasts of Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
Joan swept across Colombia’s Guajira Peninsula as a tropical storm Monday and became a hurricane Tuesday.
It killed 15, left 20 missing, injured 50 and flooded or destroyed the homes of 27,000 people, Colombia’s National Emergency Committee said Wednesday.
By Wednesday evening, the storm was 300 miles east of the coastal town of Bluefields, Nicaragua. It was moving west at 5 to 10 m.p.h., and maximum sustained winds were near 120 m.p.h.
“What we’re really concerned about is that we have not had a Category 3 hurricane before in this portion of the Caribbean,” Mayfield said. “We are very concerned that the people down there have never experienced anything like this.”
A Category 3 storm has maximum sustained winds from 111 m.p.h. to 130 m.p.h.
Meanwhile, at least 5,000 people fled Costa Rica’s Puerto Limon and 3,000 more were evacuated from other coastal towns, said Johnny Alfaro, a national emergency committee director
“If the hurricane stays over water, it is possible its full force will hit Bluefields (today) or Friday morning. It could be a disaster because most of the buildings there are of wood,” said Alejo Moreno, head of the Nicaraguan weather service.
Joan is the fifth hurricane of the Atlantic season. In September, Hurricane Gilbert left more than 150 people dead across the Caribbean and into Mexico.