Hurricane Richard heads toward Belize

Hurricane Richard formed in the Caribbean and steamed toward an expected landfall Sunday in the tiny Central American nation of Belize, where hundreds of people were evacuated as it approached.

Hurricane Richard formed in the Caribbean and steamed toward an expected landfall Sunday in the tiny Central American nation of Belize, where hundreds of people were evacuated as it approached.

A hurricane warning was in effect for Belize and western Honduras, where Richard dumped heavy rains on the coast and the Bay Islands, which are popular with tourists and divers.

Richard was a Category 1 storm with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph (140 kph), and its centre was about 55 miles (85 kilometres) east-southeast of Belize City, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Tourists were evacuated from Caye Caulker, a low-lying island known for its coral reefs and crystal-clear waters, located just offshore from Belize City.

Rafael Marin, the caretaker at the Anchorage Resort hotel, said strong gusts of wind were already hitting the island and its normally calm waters were being whipped into 3-foot (1-meter) waves lapping at the island’s docks.

“We already boarded up everything, and we already got everything — office equipment and everything — stored in a safe place,” Marin said. “We got all the tourists out, and get the whole place secured down.”

But like many locals, Marin planned to ride out the storm in the three-story hotel.

He said he expected only some beach erosion and minor damage to homes, noting the island has been hit by more powerful storms in the past.

“The local people are advised to evacuate on their own, voluntarily,” Marin said. “It’s not really major, like a Category 3” hurricane.

Richard was moving west-northwest at about 13 mph (20 kph) on a projected path that would take it right at Belize City, according to the centre. Forecasters said Richard could near Category 2 strength before hitting land.

Belize City is full of wooden, tin-roofed houses that are highly vulnerable to strong winds. It was devastated by Hurricane Hattie in 1961, prompting officials to move the capital inland to Belmopan.

But Belize City is still the nation’s largest population centre, with about 100,000 inhabitants — a third of the country’s population.

However officials in Belize said they expected Richard to hit somewhat south of the capital, between Belize City and the coastal town of Dangriga.

They warned people living in flimsy homes or low-lying areas to evacuate, and shelters at schools and other public buildings began filling up.

The National Emergency Management Organization also urged merchants not to raise prices for people who rushed to stores to stock up on basic necessities as the hurricane approached.

On Roatan, in Honduras’s Bay Islands, observers reported winds of up to 58 mph (93 kph). More than 90 people took refuge in shelters in the Bay Islands, which lie between Honduras and Belize.

Lisandro Rosales, the head of Honduras’ Permanent Emergency Commission, said no deaths or injuries had been reported in Honduras so far.

But Richard’s heavy rains did cause a landslide that blocked a highway in northern Colon province, cutting off about 15,000 residents in 40 small towns. Crews were working to clear the road.

Mexico issued a hurricane watch for its southern Caribbean coast, and while Richard is expected to cross over the Yucatan peninsula and re-emerge in the Gulf of Mexico, forecasters said it is likely to weaken and dissipate over Gulf waters.

Authorities said dangerous floods and mudslides were still possible in Honduras and declared states of maximum alert in four coastal provinces.

The hurricane centre said Richard could cause “large, destructive waves” and storm surges of 2 to 4 feet above normal tides in Honduras and Belize. The storm could bring 3 to 5 inches (7 to 13 centimetres) of rain to northern Honduras and as much as 7 inches (18 centimetres) in some spots.

Tropical storm-force winds extended 105 miles (165 kilometres) from the hurricane’s centre.