Felix slammed into Central America’s remote Miskito coastline and Henriette slammed into resorts on the tip of Baja California as a record-setting hurricane season got even wilder with twin storms making landfall on the same day.
Yesterday was historic for two reasons: It was the first time on record that two Category 5 Atlantic hurricanes made landfall in the same year, with Felix coming two weeks after Hurricane Dean slammed into southern Mexico; and it was the first time Atlantic and Pacific hurricanes made landfall the same day, according to records dating back to 1949.
The closest comparison happened at 5am on August 24 1992, when Andrew devastated southern Florida 23 hours after Lester hit Baja California, Mexico.
Felix roared ashore before dawn as a Category 5 storm in Nicaragua’s north-eastern corner – an isolated, swampy jungle where people get around mainly by canoe – and officials said at least three people were killed. Eight hours later, Henriette’s eye struck Los Cabos, packing driving rain that fell in near-horizontal sheets.
Felix’s 160mph winds slammed the city of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, peeling roofs off shelters and a police station, knocking down power lines and destroying or damaging 5,000 homes, according to Lt Col Samuel Perez, Nicaragua’s deputy head of civil defence.
The Puerto Cabezas area has about 60,000 residents and 12,000 homes, most made of wood with roofs of corrugated metal or palm branches. Perez said one man drowned when his boat capsized, a woman was killed when a tree fell on her house and a girl died shortly after birth because the storm made it impossible for her to receive medical attention.
Nicaragua’s government declared the northern Caribbean region a disaster area and warned that torrential rain brought by Felix could cause rivers to jump their banks.
After making landfall, Felix quickly weakened to a tropical storm with winds of 50mph, but forecasters worried that up to 25ins of rain would drench inland towns and cause mudslides in the mountain capitals of Tegucigalpa and Guatemala City, where shantytowns cling precariously to hillsides.
In 1998, Hurricane Mitch parked over the same region for days, causing deadly flooding and mudslides that killed nearly 11,000 people and left more than 8,000 missing.
The Honduran government was letting water out of dams in an attempt to reduce flooding and 10,000 people were being evacuated from the capital, mostly from poor neighbourhoods and street markets that ring the city.
President Manuel Zelaya said Honduras would remain on maximum alert until it was sure Felix had dissipated.
On the other side of Mesoamerica, Henriette had top winds of 85mph as it struck Baja resorts popular with Hollywood stars and sports fishermen. Airports were closed, leaving tourists and residents to face driving rain and 15ft waves that sent plumes of whitewater crashing against the main marina.
Waves washed away sand, licked at the walls of beachfront hotels and engulfed many of the resorts' natural stone arches just offshore. The storm knocked out power, uprooted trees and flooded streets.
Catamarans crashed against their moorings and palm trees bent in the wind before the eye moved directly over Cabo San Lucas, bringing a brief calm to those huddled inside hotels. Some people left their hotels and homes, apparently thinking the storm had passed.
In Guatemala, presidential elections were still scheduled for Sunday, but authorities prepared supplies and equipment for heavy rains and flooding. In Honduras, schools were closed and 11,000 soldiers went on alert.
By yesterday, inland communities were getting pounded and flooding was a problem. Residents of La Ceiba on the Honduran coast waded through waist-deep, rubbish-strewn water. And in the Nicaraguan mining town of Bonanza 1,000 refugees crowded into 16 shelters. Mayor Maximo Sevilla said most roads were washed out or blocked by debris.
Felix is the 31st Category 5 hurricane seen in the Atlantic since record-keeping began in 1886 – and the eighth in the last five seasons. Some meteorologists say the numbers are up because new technology allows us to measure their intensity better, but others see signs of global warming, saying that human-caused increases in sea surface temperatures are making storms stronger.
Dr Chris Landsea, science operations officer at the US Hurricane Centre, agreed that global warming was a factor – but a very small one.
“All of the studies suggest that by the end of this century, hurricanes may become stronger by five per cent because of global warming. So a 100mph hurricane would be 105mph,” he said. “Most of what we’re seeing is natural fluctuations.”
Henriette claimed seven lives even before it strengthened into a hurricane. One woman drowned in high surf in Cabo San Lucas on Monday, and the storm caused flooding and landslides that killed six people in Acapulco over the weekend.