Hurricane Joan, the most powerful storm in Nicaragua’s history, razed the Corn Islands and slammed ashore in the Caribbean port of Bluefields with 135-m.p.h. winds Saturday. Officials said they fear a heavy loss of life among coastal residents who had refused to move inland.
Preliminary reports said that 13 Nicaraguans were dead and that 140 are missing as the storm churned toward Managua with weaker winds but heavy rains. Nearly 200,000 people were told to leave their homes along Joan’s westerly path.
In neighboring Costa Rica, authorities reported 21 dead and 15 missing as a result of the storm. Panama officials reported three deaths and said that mud slides had closed the Pan American Highway.
Earlier, the hurricane had killed 26 people in Venezuela and Colombia in its sweep across the Caribbean Sea.
President Daniel Ortega said the hurricane’s blow to Nicaragua’s Miskito coast and jungle lagoons was “devastating . . . with what loss of lives, what loss of homes, we don’t know.”
The center of the storm roared straight into Bluefields Bay between 3 and 4 a.m. with blinding rain and towering 15-foot waves. Gusting winds uprooted trees, destroyed nearly all the town’s flimsy wood-slat homes on stilts and tore tin roofs off sturdier emergency shelters jammed by most of the 20,000 residents who had rejected government help to evacuate.
William Ramirez, the top government official in Bluefields, said early rescue efforts found 10 people dead, three of them crushed by the collapsing roof of a Moravian church.
On Great Corn Island and Little Corn Island, where 7,500 people had shunned navy rescue boats to brave the storm, not a single house was left with a roof after 14 hours of Joan’s intense pounding, according to Ray Hooker, who headed relief efforts there.
Hooker said the storm destroyed a seafood processing plant that is the islanders’ livelihood, all their schools and churches, and nearly all the fruit trees. The only clinic was also blown away, leaving no medicine for the injured.
Three people were found dead in the Corn Islands, Hooker said, but heavy rains slowed the search for other victims. The islands are 40 miles offshore.
“I lived through the 1972 earthquake in Managua and this is much worse--what the Corn Islanders have just suffered,” Hooker said in a radio conversation with Ortega. The Dec. 23 quake claimed an estimated 10,000 lives to become Nicaragua’s deadliest natural disaster.
Ortega said that 140 people were missing along the swollen Escondido River, which connects Nicaragua’s only east-west highway with Bluefields, the largest town on the coast. The river was the evacuation route for the 4,378 people who, by official count, were ferried to safety from Bluefields, nearby El Bluff as well as the Corn Islands.
The deadly winds lost their hurricane force as Joan danced up the river and westward across mangrove forests and Lake Nicaragua toward a late-night rendezvous with the capital, 150 miles away. Though downgraded by mid-morning to a tropical storm, with wind’s of about 40 m.p.h., it dumped 15 inches of rain along its path.
Flash flood and mud slide warnings were issued for all of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, from their Caribbean coastlines to the Pacific, and for western Panama and eastern Honduras.
Destructive winds left 2,000 people homeless in Rama, Nicaragua, where the east-west highway meets the Escondido, and destroyed another 30 homes in the town of Nueva Guinea, Ortega said.
San Carlos, on the eastern shore of Lake Nicaragua, was flooded and 5,000 people were moved. The government also evacuated hospitals in Puerto Cabezas, 120 miles north of Bluefields, and the inland provincial capital of Boaco.
In Costa Rica, Vice President Jorge M. Dengo Abregon said that four of the 21 reported deaths occurred when the Coto River burst its banks and carried away several houses. Victor Brenes of the Costa Rican National Emergency Committee said that some houses in coastal communities are under water but that their inhabitants had been evacuated by boat.
Joan is the fifth Atlantic storm to reach hurricane proportions this year. Besides 26 dead, it left 50 missing and 100,000 homeless earlier in the week when it struck the Colombian mainland and dumped torrential rain into neighboring Venezuela. After stalling for 18 hours, it baffled forecasters by gaining strength and resuming a slow, deadly aim at Bluefields--instead of either breaking up or drifting northwesterly as most hurricanes do.
The storm posed a major challenge to Ortega’s Sandinista government just as its debilitating six-year war against the U.S.-backed Contras was winding down. The country is desperately poor, and Sandinista officials say they are well aware that a mishandled catastrophe could turn widespread discontent into civil unrest.
For the first time since the 1979 Sandinista takeover, Ortega activated an emergency defense system designed for natural disasters or a U.S. military attack. A Supreme Defense Council, made up of the president and four other top comandantes , directed deployments of food, medicine and gasoline, using state-of-emergency powers to press private vehicles and other resources into the service of the state.
Even before the storm hit, Vice President Sergio Ramirez was dispatched to Europe to lobby for relief funds. Responding to an international appeal, Cuba sent Col. Juan Olivera, the head of its civil defense, and five other disaster specialists to plan evacuations.
Cuba also lent a hand by allowing Nicaragua to fly most of its air force fleet to Cuban military bases, getting the planes out of harm’s way. Ortega said relief offers have come from Mexico, Sweden, the European Community and Nicaragua’s principal benefactor, the Soviet Union.
(In Los Angeles, Operation California, an international relief agency, announced an airlift of emergency assistance to Nicaragua and Costa Rica for late this week.
(Agency President Richard Walden said that needs so far include inflatable boats, outboard motors, housing and shelter materials, water storage and purification equipment, tents, medical supplies and donated transport services. Inquiries to 213-658-8876.)
Inevitably, the storm stirred nasty political winds. Although the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Florida gave its ill-equipped Nicaraguan counterpart invaluable satellite data to help track Joan’s progress, Ortega accused the United States of “taking advantage of this tragedy to intensify the aggression” against his regime.
Ortega cited a Contra attack on an ambulance near Nueva Guinea early Saturday--the driver was reported wounded--and a U.S. congressional resolution last week warning that military aid to the Contras might be renewed if the Sandinista army breaks a truce. In view of the approaching natural disaster, he called the warning “cynical, cruel and immoral.”
Asked if he would accept U.S. relief, the president declared, “The best help they can give us is to stop the aggression.”
In an emotional address to the nation, Ortega appealed to “the inexhaustible moral reserves of the Nicaraguan people, who have defended our revolution against Yankee imperialism, to help confront this disaster.”
Joan is only the fourth hurricane to hit Nicaragua in the past century. Sandinista officials admit being caught off guard by the unlikely westward course that brought it to Bluefields and by the task of coping hurriedly with its damage.
The hurricane’s most vulnerable targets--a coastal people descended from African slaves brought by English settlers--made relief work difficult for the Sandinistas by refusing to leave their homes. Long aloof from encroachment by the Spanish or Hispanic Nicaraguans, most Blufelinos waited in their flimsy homes until late Friday night before Joan’s advance winds sent them scurrying into 10 town shelters.
In the days before, the navy had sent more than 30 fishing boats to evacuate Bluefields, and Ortega flew there for a few hours Friday to try to persuade people to leave.
“They were incredulous,” Ortega said Saturday. “They never believed they would have to face this kind of phenomenon.”
Ramirez, the Sandinista official in Bluefields, said that 1,700 people had to be moved from the Moravian church shelter to the Town Hall late Friday after the church’s roof collapsed. In the radio conversation with Ortega, he also said that 500 other people scrambled into shelters when their homes blew away.
The radio went dead at 1:45 a.m. when its antenna was blown down, Ortega said.
Then, instead of hitting 50 miles south of Bluefields, as forecasters had predicted, Joan slammed directly into the town.
By the time radio contact was re-established in mid-afternoon Saturday, the Red Cross estimated that 95% of the houses in Bluefields had been destroyed.
“The hurricane hit with an extraordinary intensity, so we fear that there could be a disaster of great magnitude in Bluefields,” government spokesman Dionisio Marenco said in Managua.
Meanwhile, Managuans braced for the storm under a daylong drizzle. Work crews hauled high-powered lights down from the towers over the city’s baseball stadium and cleared debris from drainage canals to keep them from overflowing. Along those waterways, residents trimmed trees and piled concrete blocks and sandbags in front of their shacks. Shoppers stocked up on gasoline and groceries.
Officials were more worried about flooding in Managua, a lake-front city of 3 million people, than about high winds. “The drainage in this city is not the best in the world,” said Alejandro Rodriguez, director of the National Institute of Territorial Studies.
More than 70,000 people were to be evacuated from low-lying areas of the capital.
At the Divine Pastor Roman Catholic school in Managua’s Altagracia neighborhood, 400 refugees from those low-lying areas lounged in the hallways Saturday amid rations of powdered milk and gas lanterns. Most were old people, invalids or single women with children.
“If we were not here we might die by drowning,” said Olga Flores, a mother of five.
But not all those on the evacuation list went to the shelters.
“I’m going to stay until the water gets up to here,” said Jose Dolores Lopez, a bare-chested construction worker who sat on a pile of sandbags outside his modest wooden home with his wife and six children. “If I leave too soon my house will be robbed.”