PUERTO CABEZAS, Nicaragua (Reuters) - Bodies of Miskito Indians killed by Hurricane Felix floated in the Caribbean off Central America and washed up on beaches on Thursday as the death toll from the storm rose to over 60.
Many of the dead were traveling by boat when they were hit by huge waves as Felix struck near the border between Honduras and Nicaragua on Tuesday as a giant Category 5 storm.
Other victims appeared to have been sucked away from their flimsy shacks on the shore. Nicaraguan fishermen told reporters they saw bodies of people still tied to trees in a vain bid to stay safe from winds of 160 mph (256 kph) and roaring seas.
“We have at 42 people dead,” local Gov. Reynaldo Francis told reporters, adding that he expected that figure to rise. “In Honduras and in our territory on the coast ... more are appearing,” he said.
Relatives sheltering in the port of Puerto Cabezas wept as soldiers in small boats carrying emergency food returned from tiny coastal villages and reported inhabitants missing. Others rejoiced as boats brought bedraggled survivors to the port.
The fierce storm struck fear into the local people.
“They told us a hurricane was coming and all the men and women were in their houses crying,” said Ana Isolina Alvarado, an indigenous woman arriving from one of the tiny Cayos Miskitos islets in a fishing boat. She took refuge from the storm in the boat after it got trapped in nearby mangroves.
She told a local television channel that four of her family were missing and dozens more from her village.
Up to 25 bodies floated in the sea near the Nicaraguan border on Thursday, the Honduran civil protection agency said.
Reviving memories of Hurricane Mitch, which killed 10,000 people in Central America in 1998, Felix smashed up thousands of flimsy wooden homes in Nicaragua, flattened trees and made barely developed jungle areas even less passable than normal.
It mainly hit the turtle-fishing Miskitos, who formed a British protectorate until the 19th century and still live in wooden shacks in isolated and sparsely populated marshlands dotted with lagoons and crocodile-infested rivers. Some 35,000 of them live in Honduras and more than 100,000 in Nicaragua.
Aerial images showed the area strewn with debris.
Felix came on the heels of another deadly Category 5 storm, Hurricane Dean -- the first time on record that two Atlantic storms made landfall as Category 5 hurricanes in one season.
An exact number of dead and missing was hard to come by. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said on Wednesday that more than 200 people were missing, but 52 Miskito Indian survivors were later fished out of the sea off Honduras.
“They were holding onto planks and buoys for hours,” said local Honduran deputy Carolina Echeverria. The Navy was amazed when it found the Miskito Indians near Raya, close to the Nicaraguan border.
Half the group were in good enough shape to be sent home on a Nicaraguan Navy boat, while the rest were taken to hospitals in Honduras.
Teams of Nicaraguan soldiers distributed food to cut-off villagers surviving on nothing but coconuts.
“We are still waiting for help,” a Miskito woman called Lilian told reporters in her coastal hamlet where 2,000 people stood helplessly in the debris of their wrecked homes.
Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa and Ivan Castro in Managua