Bluefields (Nicaragua) (AFP) - An intensifying hurricane poised to strike Nicaragua and Costa Rica on Thursday with powerful winds and heavy rains that are likely to trigger dangerous floods and mudslides.
Packing winds of 175 kilometers (110 miles) per hour, Hurricane Otto was about to make landfall, according to the US National Hurricane Center.
Earlier this week, as it massed offshore, its outer bands of wind and rain caused four deaths in Panama, and there were fears of further casualties and destruction as it lumbered across the Central American isthmus.
Coastal conditions were mostly calm just before, with AFP journalists in Nicaragua and Costa Rica's major cities on the Caribbean coast, Bluefields and Limon, reporting little rain or wind.
Panic-buying in the region has cleared shops of bottled water, battery-powered lamps and plastic bags.
Thousands of residents in the storm's path have been evacuated, while those on the periphery have either fled or, opting to stay, covered windows with metal sheeting or wood.
"This is the first time a hurricane has hit here," said Faucia Pena, an inhabitant of Bluefields. "We are asking God to end it or send it elsewhere. Everybody is afraid."
- 'Highly destructive' -
Marie Rickey, a 69-year-old resident on Corn Island, located off Bluefields and lashed with wind and rain, said: "We're not afraid because God is with us and will look after us."
Both Nicaragua and Costa Rica have closed schools, mobilized emergency crews and issued red alerts for at-risk areas across much of their territories.
Costa Rica has declared a nationwide emergency, sending non-essential public workers home for two days and urging private companies to do likewise.
"Let me be clear: the hurricane is potentially highly destructive," Costa Rican President Luis Guilermo Solis warned in a broadcast late Wednesday.
It will be the first time Costa Rica has taken a direct hit from a hurricane since records began in 1851.
Otto was projected to slowly pass along the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border, a mostly rural path that would miss the two countries' inland capitals.
But the very heavy rain it was bringing with it "will likely result in life-threatening flash floods and mudslides," according to the US hurricane center.
Some Nicaraguans further south crossed the nearby border into Costa Rica, hoping it would be safer there, according to locals.
Costa Rican officials met early Thursday to evaluate preparations.
"We are doing everything necessary," Solis said, adding that there were no shortages of fuel or water reported.
- Risk to crops -
The authorities have ordered the evacuation of more than 4,000 people along the sparsely inhabited northern half of Costa Rica's 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 Limon.
One woman who did evacuate her home near the village of Barra del Colorado, Teresa Romero, 52, told AFP that around 10 male locals had refused to leave. She was taking shelter in a church near the capital 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 farmers who rely on maize (corn), 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.
Otto is a rare, late-appearing hurricane in the Atlantic storm season, which runs from June to the end of November.
It is also on an unusually southern trajectory.
A previous, far-stronger hurricane, Matthew, devastated parts of southern Haiti early last month, killing 546 people and leaving nearly 175,000 homeless.