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article image'Life-threatening' storm bears down on Costa Rica, Nicaragua

By Inti Ocon in Bluefields and Julia Rios in Managua (AFP)     Nov 23, 2016 in Environment

A Caribbean storm verging on a hurricane spun towards the coasts of Costa Rica and Nicaragua on Wednesday, prompting evacuations and red alerts ahead of "life-threatening" flash flooding.

In Bluefields, a Nicaraguan city of 45,000 inhabitants directly in the storm's path, there was panicked buying of battery-powered lamps, bottled water, canned food and plastic bags.

"We're ready to run or stay put," one resident, Dolene Miller, told AFP by telephone.

"I'm expecting it won't hit Bluefields directly... but it's worrying that it's stationary because it's growing bigger and taking up a lot of water and has become unpredictable -- it could go in any direction," a shopkeeper, Elmer Jackson, said.

Tropical Storm Otto, lumbering in slowly from the Caribbean, was regaining strength, after briefly losing a little force earlier Wednesday.

It was forecast to become a full-on hurricane with winds over 119 kilometers (74 miles) per hour when it makes landfall on Thursday, the US National Hurricane Center said.

It has already proved deadly in Panama, where on Tuesday its outer band of rains and wind caused a mud slide that killed two people and brought down a tree that crushed a nine-year-old boy in a car in the capital.

A search was underway for three people who went missing in a small boat, Jose Laniado, operations chief for Panama's National Air and Naval Service, told media. Another person was feared swept away by a river.

- Evacuations -

Hurricane Otto
Hurricane Otto
Gustavo IZUS, Anella RETA, AFP

Princes Barberena, a resident in Greytown, an outpost on Nicaragua's far southern Caribbean coast, said some locals were crossing the nearby border into Costa Rica looking for safer shelter.

But the situation there was not projected to be much better.

Costa Rican officials have ordered the evacuation of more than 4,000 people along the sparsely inhabited northern half of its Caribbean coast. But some were defiantly staying.

"Some people don't want to leave their homes, leave all their possessions, their animals," police officer Christian Rodriguez told the Costa Rican newspaper La Nacion in the village of Batan, close to the Caribbean port city of Limon.

The Teletica television network reported that two people were arrested for prowling through evacuated homes.

Evacuated people take shelter in a church in Guapiles  Costa Rica  some 100 km from Limon  on Novemb...
Evacuated people take shelter in a church in Guapiles, Costa Rica, some 100 km from Limon, on November 23, 2016

One woman who did evacuate her home near the village of Barra del Colorado, Teresa Romero, 52, told AFP that around 10 men had refused to leave. She was taking shelter with neighbors in a church near the inland capital of San Jose.

The high winds and heavy rains could devastate crops -- a big blow especially in Nicaragua, one of the poorest countries in Latin America.

Otto "could seriously jeopardize food security for small-holder farmers who rely on maize, beans, cocoa, honey, coffee and livestock for their livelihoods" in Nicaragua, Jennifer Zapata, a regional director for Heifer International, a US-based poverty-fighting charity, said in a statement.

"The storm is coming at a terrible time for the vital coffee crop, which is usually harvested between now and December," she said.

- Late-season storm -

Otto's exterior band dumped heavy rain on Panama on November 22  2016  killing two people in a ...
Otto's exterior band dumped heavy rain on Panama on November 22, 2016, killing two people in a mud slide and crushing a nine-year-old boy in a car in the capital
Rodrigo Arangua, AFP/File

Otto was a rare, late-appearing weather system in the Atlantic storm season, which runs from June to the end of November.

It was also on an unusually southern trajectory. If it does strengthen, it will be the first time Costa Rica has suffered a direct hit from a hurricane since records began in 1851.

A previous, far-stronger hurricane, Matthew, devastated parts of southern Haiti early last month, killing 546 people and leaving nearly 175,000 homeless.

The US National Hurricane Center said up to 50 centimeters (20 inches) of rain could fall on northern Costa Rica and southern Nicaragua between Wednesday and Thursday.

"These rains will likely result in life-threatening flash floods and mud slides," it warned.

Dangerous surf and rips were also likely, it said.

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