Beta becomes surprise to Nicaraguans

Hurricane Beta took a surprise turn south Sunday, sending thousands of rural Nicaraguan villagers who weren't prepared scrambling to safety before it weakened to a tropical storm. Beta made landfall Sunday morning in Sandy Bay Sirpi, 80 miles south of Puerto Cabezas, as a Category 2 hurricane. Just two hours earlier, it had been a Category 3 hurricane packing 115 mph winds and dubbed small but dangerous by the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade.

But a projected path northwest was not to be; high pressure pushed the season's 23rd named storm south, dumping torrential rainfall on Nicaragua's sparsely populated central Atlantic regions. There were no immediate reports of injuries Sunday, although 10 boaters were missing in Puerto Cabezas.

By evening, Beta had been downgraded to a tropical depression. Tiny villages accessible only by boat some 30 miles from Bluefields on the Atlantic Coast found out at 10:30 p.m. Saturday that Beta, at that point a Category 2 storm on the verge of growing stronger, was headed their way, not to Puerto Cabezas, where at least 11,000 had evacuated.

''It was so surprising,'' Ana Marнa Fajardo, spokeswoman for the Laguna de Perla city hall, said by phone from Nicaragua. ``At 10:30 at night, we headed out with 50 or 60 boats to get people out. When we told people to move, they moved. Nobody slept.''

Some 1,500 people were evacuated in the dead of night, she said. But some 600 people in Laguna de Perla's 17 lake-front villages stayed behind, because of strong winds.

Fajardo estimated that some 200 homes in her area were severely damaged: 80 percent in Tasba Pauni, and half of those in Setnet Point. Fajardo said other villages, including La Barra de Rнo Grande, Sandy Bay Sirpi and Karawala were caught by surprise and were under water. ''They turned on the radio and found out the hurricane was right on top of them,'' she said.

Rнo Grande's mayor told the Nicaraguan paper La Prensa that the town didn't have enough gasoline to evacuate everyone.

''The people are at the mercy of God,'' Mayor Leslie Downs told La Prensa.

National Hurricane Center specialist James Franklin said ''no one should have been surprised or unprepared'' despite Beta's sharp southwest turn, because hurricane warnings had been issued for a large swath of the Atlantic region.

Interior Minister Julio Vega told La Prensa he feared up to 85 percent of the homes in Beta's path would be affected.

Juan Rodrнguez, spokesman for Nicaragua's disaster prevention agency, said the storm had prevented flyovers needed to assess damage.

'We are still in the `during' phase of the storm,'' he said.

Rodrнguez said 123 of Nicaragua's 150 cities had been on yellow alert. The ''brusque'' turn suddenly put a central portion of the nation in the storm's path, putting places like Chontales, Leуn and Estelн eventually at risk, he said, reports Miami Herald. I.L.