TEGUCIGALPA (AFP) – Tropical Storm Matthew drenched Central America Saturday with torrential rain, forcing thousands to evacuate and bringing fresh misery to a region were hundreds have died in flooding and landslides this year.
With communities in several countries on red alert, Matthew surged ashore in northeastern Nicaragua then headed west, dumping rain across much of Honduras, where about 15 people were missing after boarding a sailboat.
In Haiti, an unrelated freak storm killed at least five survivors from its devastating January quake and wounded dozens as it blasted through the capital Port-au-Prince, tearing down shabby tent homes, trees and power lines.
And Venezuela too was left counting the cost of rains that lashed the northern regions of the country, which is set to hold legislative elections Sunday.
Citing fire department officials, Venezuela’s VNA state news agency said seven people died late Friday in the Caracas neighborhood of Santa Ana de Antimano after their home was flooded, while preventive evacuations were conducted in other areas at high risk of flooding and mudslides.
Tropical Storm Matthew struck further south than expected on Friday, Rosalba Silva of Nicaragua’s Meteorology Institute told AFP.
At 1200 GMT Saturday, Matthew’s center was approaching the northern coast of Honduras from inland about 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of the coastal city of La Ceiba, according to the US National Hurricane Center (NHC).
It weakened slightly, with sustained winds now at 75 kilometers (45 miles) per hour.
But the major threat was the intense rains Matthew was unleashing on the region. The NHC has warned that the storm could produce 15 to 25 centimeters (six to 10 inches) of rainfall over portions of Honduras, Belize, Nicaragua and Guatemala, with isolated amounts of 38 centimeters (15 inches) possible.
“These rains could produce life-threatening flash floods and mud slides,” the NHC said in a bulletin.
There have been no reports of victims or serious damage in Honduras, though the Honduran government expanded a red alert nationwide because Matthew threatened all 18 departments.
“This is a new threat. Tropical Storm Matthew has entered the territory and we predict heavy rains throughout the country,” President Porfirio Lobo told reporters.
Randolfo Funez of the national emergency commission pointed to high water levels in rivers, noting that the soil was already highly saturated from frequent rains since Tropical Storm Agatha made landfall in May.
Some 10,000 Miskito Indians living on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast were evacuated ahead of the storm, said Civil Defense chief Mario Perezcassar. Another 5,000 were evacuated to temporary shelters from areas in Nicaragua at risk of flooding, mainly near the Coco river.
Matthew is a large storm, with tropical force storm winds extending outward up to 280 kilometers (175 miles) from the center, the NHC said.
It is expected to slam into Belize and Guatemala later Saturday before rumbling into southern Mexico — already devastated by historic flooding this year — late Sunday or early Monday.
Belize placed its entire coastline on a tropical storm watch. Guatemala declared a red alert in eight of its 22 departments and an orange alert in the rest of the country.
Central America is in the midst of one of the most intense rainy seasons in the past 60 years, with flooding and landslides that have killed more than 300 people, left tens of thousands homeless and caused billions of dollars in damage in recent months.