Hurricane Felix Barrels Into Nicaragua

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
September 4, 2007
Hurricane Felix came ashore this morning as a Category 5 storm on the northern coast of Nicaragua near the border with Honduras (see map).

Category 5 is a classification reserved for the most intense storms, with winds of at least 155 miles (250 kilometers) an hour.

Felix slammed into the swampy coastline with winds of 160 miles (257 kilometers) an hour and pushed ashore a potentially devastating storm surge of at least 18 feet (5.5 meters).

Mark Willis, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said breaking waves of 20 feet (6 meters) high or more would be riding atop the surge.

"It's just going to be a mess out there," Willis said.

Shortly before landfall, Felix's eye was about 65 miles (104 kilometers) southeast of the Nicaraguan town of Cabo Gracias a Dios and headed toward a region of small coastal villages, Willis said.

This low-lying region is home to thousands of Miskito Indians who depend on canoes to navigate shallow rivers and lakes to reach higher ground, the Associated Press reported.

Felix's landfall came shortly before Colorado State University (CSU) meteorologists issued a prediction on Tuesday morning that the remaining hurricane season would be very active.

CSU researchers Phil Klotzbach and William Gray predicted that ten more named storms could form before the season ends on November 30.

Of those storms, six are expected to become hurricanes with winds of at least 74 miles (119 kilometers) an hour. Three of those storms could intensify into major hurricanes with winds exceeding 110 miles (177 kilometers) an hour, CSU predicts.

Double Whammy

Felix is the second Category 5 hurricane to make landfall during the 2007 Atlantic hurricane season, which started on June 1 and lasts until November 30.

(Related: "2007 Hurricane Season Begins, Will Be Busy, Forecasters Say" [June 1, 2007].)

Last month powerful Hurricane Dean came ashore on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. Dean made landfall on August 21 with winds of 165 miles (265 kilometers) an hour.

The 2007 season is thought to be the first time that two Category 5 hurricanes have made landfall in the same season since record keeping started in the late 19th century.

Felix became a Category 5 hurricane shortly before its eye came ashore at about 8 a.m. eastern time.

Category 5 hurricanes have the potential to do catastrophic damage on land. The winds can completely level houses, and the huge pounding waves can smash buildings on or near the shore.

Felix is expected to weaken rapidly as it moves westward across the mountains of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. It should eventually dissipate late this week somewhere over Mexico.

The storm will likely dissipate quickly over this terrain, but will still dump at least 5 to 10 inches (12.7 to 25.4 centimeters) of rain in Nicaragua and Honduras, the National Hurricane Center's Willis said.

In some places, rainfall could be as much as 20 inches (50.8 centimeters).

"That could produce life-threatening flash floods and mudslides," he said.

Rapid Growth

Felix underwent an astonishingly rapid intensification as it moved over the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea Saturday and Sunday.

The tempest began on August 31 as a tropical depression just east of the Caribbean.

By Sunday night—only 51 hours later—the hurricane had reached Category 5 status (find out how hurricanes work).

A National Hurricane Center advisory issued at 8 p.m eastern time on Sunday noted that a hurricane-hunter aircraft had to abort its data-gathering mission because of the unusually intense and dangerous turbulence it encountered inside the storm.

(Related: "Hurricane Hunter Gets an Insider's View of Katrina" [September 16, 2005].)

The aircraft also ran into hail, another indication of an extremely intense hurricane.

And even as Felix started its trek across Central America, another hurricane was threatening Mexico's west coast.

As of 8 a.m. eastern time on Tuesday, Hurricane Henriette was in the Pacific Ocean just off the tip of Mexico's Baja Peninsula. The storm is expected to move inland late today or early Wednesday.

Henriette's top winds reach about 75 miles (121 kilometers) an hour, making it a Category 1 hurricane. But the National Hurricane Center's forecast for Henriette notes that the storm is over warm water and could gain more strength before it comes ashore.

"We could see some effect over the southwestern United States after it moves over the Gulf of California," Willis said. "Some of the moisture from the storm could spread over the Southwest."

Meteorologists also are watching an area of disturbed weather in the Atlantic about 365 miles (587 kilometers) east-southeast of Savannah, Georgia.

That system has the potential to become the Atlantic's seventh named tropical storm.

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