Thousands of people clutching clothing, chickens and sacks of beans fled for higher ground Friday as Hurricane Joan stalked the Central American coast with 110 mph winds and torrential rains.

While Nicaragua and Costa Rica were in the most immediate danger, flash floods and mud-slides could hit throughout Central America, said Bob Sheets, director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Fla.He said the storm was heading west and picking up speed Friday evening. The center of the hurricane will likely cross somewhere on the central coast of Nicaragua Saturday morning, he said.

The storm already has left at least 26 dead and tens of thousands homeless in Colombia and Venezuela.

A mudslide 15 feet high blocked the Pan-American Highway in Panama about 100 miles from the Costa Rican border, authorities said.

Residents were seeking shelter along a 250-mile arc of coastline, and at least 52,000 people have been evacuated. In the Costa Rican town of Puerto Limon, a "red alert" was declared, meaning authorities could forcibly remove those reluctant to leave.

"It's mostly children, women and old people," said Julio Aragon in Juigalpa, Nicaragua, 100 miles west of the Caribbean coast. He said refugees were being placed in schools and other emergency shelters.

"They're carrying everything they can - chickens, pigs, sacks of beans and other small belongings," said Aragon.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, accompanied by Cuban hurricane experts, traveled to the coastal city of Bluefields and in a radio broadcast urged the population of about 60,000 to remain calm.