PUERTO CORTEZ, Honduras, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Hurricane Mitch continued to batter Honduras on Thursday, hitting the coast, reaching inland and threatening the northwest Caribbean region after claiming at least 19 lives.
After two days of downpours that caused flash-floods and mudslides, the weary Central American nation declared a state of emergency and evacuated some 100,000 people from the coast, adding to frantic flights to safety in nearby Belize, Guatemala and Mexico.
Mitch stalled late on Wednesday just over the Bay Islands, a popular tourist spot for American and European visitors.
At 1 a.m., winds were holding at 100 miles an hour (165 kph) with higher gusts -- strong enough to rip apart homes -- and remained stalled 25 miles (40 kms) north of mainland Honduras, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. Hurricane force winds extended 60 miles (100 kms) and tropical force winds extended another 175 miles (281 kms) into the region.
Earlier this week, the storm was packing 180 mph (295 kph) winds, one of the strongest this century.
The storm was expected to move little early on Thursday. It could weaken further if it continued to hover near land, the hurricane center said.
Hurricane warnings remained in effect for Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
In Honduras, Mitch sent huge waves crashing into the shore, uprooted trees and knocked over light poles, and dumped more than 25 inches (62.5 cm) of rain that turned rivers into deadly torrents.
At least 13 people died in Honduras.
"This is a tragedy and it's going to get worse because the rains are continuing. We have massive flooding and the situation will be catastrophic," Dimas Alonso of the Honduran government emergency committee told Reuters.
In neighboring Guatemala, the swollen northeastern Motagua river destroyed El Quetzalito village, drowning one man, said Naval Lt. Carlos Lopez of a government disaster commission.
And in Nicaragua to the south, two people drowned and two others were missing after crossing swollen rivers in a central province, Alejandro Morales of the Red Cross told Reuters.
That brought Mitch's total death toll in Central America and the Caribbean to 19, four days after the hurricane began its deadly path through a region known for its pristine beaches and luxury tourist resorts.
But there could be more deaths. A Mexican media report that three people had died in the Caribbean city of Chetumal could not be confirmed, while reports of 14 dead on the Honduran Bay island of Guanaja could also not be verified.
Honduran President Carlos Flores declared a state of emergency, citing the "calamity which has befallen the nation." The U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa offered military helicopters and planes to help relief efforts.
Earlier this week, Mitch was a rare, category five hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale, capable of "catastrophic" destruction. It has been downgraded to a category three, still capable of causing intensive damage.
Residents of Guanaja, one of the Bay Islands, telephoned local radio stations to say at least 14 people died there but officials said they could not confirm those reports.
"They told me 75 percent of the houses have been destroyed and that there are numerous deaths, they said 14," said Kina Haylock, a resident of Tegucigalpa who talked to her parents on the island via radio.
The port city of La Ceiba, which took the brunt of Mitch's fury, was flooded by sea water and officials said hundreds of houses and seven bridges in the area had been blown down.
Francisco Diaz, an official with a child protection agency in La Ceiba, said 100 children and 30 mothers were trapped on the roof of a building after a river flooded.
"We've asked the government and emergency services to help rescue the children, some just months old, but they tell us it's impossible to get in by helicopter or land," Diaz said.
In the small nation of Belize, an enclave half the size of Switzerland wedged between Mexico and Guatemala, residents left coastal Belize City a ghost-town as they fled en masse to seek shelter in the capital Belmopan.
"This guy (Mitch) is starting to annoy everybody. It's almost worse just waiting. Of course, we don't really want a direct hit," said Rene Villanueva, manager of Love FM radio station, where staff were sleeping on the floor.
In Mexico's state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatan peninsula, Gov. Mario Villanueva Madrid said 20,000 people were being evacuated from danger zones and low-lying areas. In neighboring Guatemala, officials evacuated another 10,000 people from a small strip of coastal Caribbean land.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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