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Hurricane becomes strongest of season

BY GEORGE PIPER | HONDURAS | October 26, 1998

HONDURAS (Oct. 26, 1998) -- As Hurricane Mitch became one of the

strongest hurricanes ever to be recorded in the Atlantic basin Monday,

officials in this country and surrounding Caribbean nations were preparing

for the worst without being sure where the storm's path might take it.

Forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami issued a

hurricane warning for eastern Honduras from Limon eastward to the Nicaragua

border and for Honduras' Swan Island while the Cayman Islands remain under

a tropical storm warning. The center urged residents in Belize, Mexico's

Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba to monitor the storm's progress.

"Some fluctuations in strength are possible ... but Mitch is expected to

remain a very dangerous hurricane capable of causing catastrophic damage,"

the U.S.National Weather Service said in a statement from Miami.

Heavy rains began to fall along the Honduran coast on Sunday night, and

the full force of the hurricane was expected to sweep along the coast on

Monday and Tuesday.

If Mitch hits Honduras, it could be the worst storm to hit the Central

American country in 24 years. In 1974, Hurricane Fifi swept Honduras'

Caribbean coast, killing at least 2,000 people and destroying 70 percent of

the country's infrastructure.

Officials at Catholic Relief Services and the International Missions

Board, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, have programs in

Honduras, where Mitch and its 170-mph winds may hit the coast today or

Tuesday. Representatives from both organizations said Monday they have

heard little in the way of preparations or damage.

Mitch, deemed the strongest storm of 1998, flooded parts of Jamaica and

the Cayman Islands as it sent heavy rains and sea swells to those areas.

Hurricane Georges, blamed for more than 500 deaths as it raked through

the eastern Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico last month, did not pack nearly

the strength of today's storm. The Atlantic basin includes the Gulf of

Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Storms as strong as Mitch

are often seen in the western Pacific.

The hurricane has changed directions several times during the past three

days and forecasters said it is too early to tell exactly where it will go.

"It could strike Cuba, it could strike the Mexican Ycatan Peninsula, we

just can't say," said a spokeperson for the National Hurricane Center.

While Mitch's path may yet take it back to the Cayman Islands, residents

there say the island has received little damage so far but businesses and

schools were closed and many tourists left Saturday and Sunday.

Roads and homes in isolated areas are flooded from 10-foot high sea

swells, said Mike Martin, general manager at CITN-TV in the Cayman Island,

but weather officials reported winds no stronger than 35 mph.

Island officials held daily meetings and issued statements as Mitch

approached the British colony of about 28,000. Government officials worked

with local radio and television stations to issue various warnings. Martin

said the Cayman Airway, the local airline, scheduled 17 extra flights to

transport some 4,000 tourists off the island.

"The government put their plan into action and it worked great," he

said. "We were well-prepared for it, but it just didn't hit us."

Stores and homes were boarded up and grocery store shelves were emptied

in anticipation of Mitch, Martin added.

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