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Hurricane kills at least 18 in Nicaragua

Times Staff Writer

Hurricane Felix killed at least 18 people and damaged thousands of homes as it passed through the remote Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. But the storm failed to produce the massive flooding many had feared in neighboring Honduras, officials said Wednesday.

Little more than a day after it came ashore as a powerful Category 5 hurricane, Felix was downgraded to a tropical depression. In the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, where 300,000 people were evacuated from low-lying areas, the rain stopped and life returned to normal.

On Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, where a second hurricane struck land less than nine hours after Felix, officials were breathing a sigh of relief. Henriette made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane just six miles from the center of San Jose del Cabo, but damage to the region’s tourist industry was minimal, officials said.

“Everything is in good shape, and we are ready to begin receiving tourists,” said Alberto Trevino, tourism secretary for Baja California Sur state. Most hotels would reopen by Friday, he said.

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Trevino said Baja California Sur would seek federal disaster funds -- but only to pay for a publicity campaign to reassure foreign tourists that the hurricane caused little damage.

Mexican officials said a 69-year-old woman who died in Cabo San Lucas on Tuesday morning, just hours before the hurricane’s arrival, was the victim of a drowning accident and not a casualty of the storm.

Henriette remained a Category 1 hurricane, with winds up to 75 mph, Wednesday afternoon as it crossed the Gulf of California and entered lightly populated marshlands in the state of Sonora. It was expected to dump 3 to 6 inches of rain on the region. It later was downgraded to a tropical storm.

In Baja California Sur state, authorities said the most serious damage caused by the storm as it passed was in rural communities south of La Paz, the state capital. The highway linking the communities to La Paz was cut, and several arroyos in the region flooded. But most residents had been evacuated ahead of the storm, officials said.

There was also damage to the roads that link Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo to the rest of the Baja peninsula.

Felix produced its most severe damage in the Nicaraguan coastal town of Puerto Cabezas, where it struck with 165 mph winds. About 90% of the structures were damaged, officials said. The town’s pier was nearly destroyed.

The death toll could increase. Civil defense officials said dozens of people were missing.

The homes of about 30,000 people in the Miskito Coast region were damaged or destroyed, disaster officials said. Because the eastern region is separated from the rest of Nicaragua by dense jungle, supplies will have to be flown in and transported by sea.

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But the thousands of deaths feared by many who remembered Hurricane Mitch’s 1998 ravaging of the Central American isthmus did not materialize.

“The situation is grave,” Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said. “But thanks to God, the number of victims . . . wasn’t of the magnitude of Mitch.”

Honduran Defense Minister Aristides Mejia said good preparation had helped keep injuries to a minimum.

“Because of the experience of Mitch, people took many precautions,” Mejia said. “People evacuated with time to spare.”

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Honduran authorities said a “red alert” remained in effect in the mountainous regions of Comayagua and Choluteca because the intermittent rains could cause mudslides.

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hector.tobar@latimes.com

Special correspondent Alex Renderos in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Cecilia Sánchez of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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