BELIZE CITY (AP) — Hurricane Richard battered the tiny Central American country of Belize with heavy rain and howling winds after making landfall just south its largest city, threatening flimsy wood-and-tin houses and forcing tourists to evacuate outlying islands.
An estimated 10,000 people in Belize took refuge at storm shelters in schools and churches ahead of the arrival of Richard, which weakened to a tropical storm early Monday as it pushed into northeastern Guatemala.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Richard’s top winds were 90 mph (150 kph) — making it a Category 1 hurricane — when it made landfall late Sunday about 20 miles (35 kilometers) south-southwest of Belize City, whose neighborhoods are full of wooden, tin-roof homes that are very vulnerable to winds.
“The winds are very strong … it’s getting stronger,” said Fanny Llanos, a clerk at the Lazy Iguana bed and Breakfast on Caye Caulker, a low-lying island known for its coral reefs and crystal-clear waters, located just offshore from Belize City.
Llanos said that palm trees were bending over in the wind and it had become very noisy.
“All the windows are boarded, and this is a strong house so we will be here,” she said, “but we are still afraid.”
After the hurricane hit land, there were no immediate reports of injuries or deaths, but roads and some low-lying neighborhoods were flooded around the area of impact.
By early Monday, Richard was located about 155 miles (250 kilometers) south-southeast of Campeche, Mexico. The storm was moving west-northwest at about 9 mph (15 kph), and tropical storm-force winds extended up to 80 miles (130 kilometers) from its center. The storm’s center was expected to move over parts of southeastern Mexico on Monday, entering the southern Gulf of Mexico on Monday night or early Tuesday.
The Mexican government discontinued all coastal warnings for that country Monday.
Belize City 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 center, with about 100,000 inhabitants — a third of the country’s population.
Tourists had already been evacuated from Caye Caulker and nearby Ambergris Caye, but some local residents decided to ride out the storm.
“We got all the tourists out, and get the whole place secured down,” said Rafael Marin, the caretaker at the Anchorage Resort hotel.
But Marin 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.
Officials warned people living in flimsy homes or low-lying areas to evacuate, and shelters at schools and other public buildings began filling up.
Earlier, Richard dumped heavy rains on Honduras’ Caribbean coast and the Bay Islands, including Roatan, which is popular with tourists and divers.