CANCUN: Hurricane Richard pummeled the Central American nation of Belize with torrential rains and fierce winds early Monday after making landfall just south of low-lying Belize City.
Richard made landfall around 0045 GMT along the coast of Belize, about 35 kilometers (20 miles) south-southwest of Belize City, packing sustained winds of 150 kilometers per hour, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.
Belize City is the largest city, with some 80,000 people, in the former British Honduras on Central America's Caribbean coast.
Until Sunday, it had not been hit directly by a hurricane in almost 50 years since 1961.
The category one storm was moving west-northwest at 17 kilometers (10 miles) per hour, according to the NHC. It was forecast to move across Belize and northern Guatemala early Monday, hitting southeastern Mexico later in the day or early Tuesday.
However, “steady weakening is expected as Richard moves further inland,” the US center predicted.
It also warned earlier that a storm surge would raise water levels by as much as 3-5 feet (1-1.5 meters) above normal tide levels along the coast of Belize near and to the north of the center.
“Near the coast the surge will be accompanied by large and destructive waves,” the NHC said.
In addition, Richard will unleash heavy rains that could produce life-threatening flash floods and mud slides especially in mountainous terrain, US forecasters pointed out.
The 17th named storm of the season, Richard is just the latest in what has become a long and especially destructive rainy season for Central America and southern Mexico.
Mudslides and floods have already killed more than 300 people in Central America this year, and left thousands more homeless.
Honduran officials said some 360 people were evacuated as a precaution from vulnerable areas in two of Honduras's Bay Islands Bahia and Trujillo on the country's northern Caribbean coast.
Honduras' disaster response agency, Copeco, said in a statement that the storm caused landslides cutting off road access to 40 coastal communities with 15,000 people, 600 kilometers north of Tegucigalpa.
In the southern Mexican state of Quintana Roo, Governor Felix Gonzalez declared the state capital of Chetumal on the highest state of alert with the hurricane's approach.
As part of the emergency measure, a state fair was canceled and alcohol sales were banned throughout the city.
But the tourist centers of Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel and Isla Mujeres on the northeastern tip of the peninsula were classed as facing minimal danger from the storm, Gonzalez said.
Mexico's National Meteorological Service said the states of Tabasco and Chiapas also could experience heavy rains and high seas as a result of the storm. – AFP