Source AP ©

Hurricane Felix nears Honduras and Nicaragua

In the final hours before the Category 4 storm was to make landfall, Grupo Taca Airlines frantically airlifted tourists from the Honduran island of Roatan, popular for its pristine reefs and diving resorts.

Tourists fled island resorts by plane or helicopter as powerful Hurricane Felix neared Honduras and Nicaragua early Tuesday, threatening to devastate a swampy coastline home to thousands of Miskito Indians.

About 1,000 people were taken off the island, including 19 Americans evacuated by a U.S. Chinook helicopters sent from the Soto Cano Air Base on mainland Honduras. Another 1,000 people were removed from low-lying coastal areas and smaller islands.

Bob Shearer, 54, from Butler, Pennsylvania, said he was disappointed his family's scuba diving trip to Roatan was cut short by the evacuation order.

"I only got seven dives in. I hope they didn't jump the gun too soon," he said as he waited for a flight home in the San Pedro Sula airport.

Felix's top winds re-strengthened to 241 kph (150 mph) as it prepared to make landfall along the Miskito Coast early Tuesday. From there, it was projected to rake northern Honduras, slam into southern Belize on Wednesday and then cut across northern Guatemala and southern Mexico, well south of Texas.

Its massive storm surge could devastate Indian communities along the Miskito Coast, an isolated region straddling the Honduras-Nicaragua border where Miskito Indians live in wooden shacks, get around on canoes and subsist on fish, beans, rice, cassava and plantains. Thousands were stranded along the coast late Monday.

The only path to safety is up rivers and across lakes that are too shallow for regular boats, but many lack gasoline for long journeys. Provincial health official Efrain Burgos estimated that 18,000 people must find their own way to higher ground.

The storm was following the same path as 1998's Hurricane Mitch, a sluggish storm that stalled for a week over Central America, killing nearly 11,000 people and leaving more than 8,000 missing, mostly in Honduras and Nicaragua.

The U.S. Southern Command said in a statement late Monday that a Chinook helicopter evacuated 19 U.S. citizens from Roatan, including tourists and members of U.S. Joint Task Force-Bravo who were visiting the island.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Felix could dump up to 30 centimeters (12 inches) of rain in isolated parts of northern Honduras and northeastern Nicaragua, possibly bringing flash floods and mudslides. As far away as the highland capital of Tegucigalpa, more