Thousands flee as Hurricane storms Central America, hits Belize

from Agence France-Presse
Published on 09 Oct 2001
MIAMI, Oct 9 (AFP) - Hurricane Iris, the strongest Atlantic storm yet this year, touched down on Belize's southern coast late Monday, gathering winds of up to 220 kilometers per hour (140 miles per hour), the US National Weather Service reported.

"The hurricane made landfall on the coast of Belize shortly after 8:00 pm (0200 GMT, Tuesday) and tore off the roofs of several homes and hotels," a radio reporter in Belize City told AFP by telephone.

There were no immediate reports of victims, the witness said. A warning for the powerful Category Four hurricane remained in effect for the Caribbean coasts of Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, from its border with Guatemala eastward to Limon.

Iris was centering around inland Belize, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) south-southwest of Belize City, moving west at 35 kilometers per hour (22 miles per hour) -- a speed and direction it is expected to take for the next 24 hours, the weather service said.

In Belize, some 80,000 of the country's 300,000 people were evacuated from the coast, moving inland just as they did in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew wreaked so much havoc.

"We are taking this threat very seriously and taking all necessary steps to ensure the safety of our people and our visitors," said Tracy Taegar, Belize's tourism director.

"Many people are evacuating Belize City and moving inland as quickly as possible," he added. "After our recent bout with Hurricane Keith, we know the drill and everyone here is responding accordingly."

Though Iris remains a small hurricane, according to the weather service, it has not stopped residents in those countries from taking precautions, fleeing inland to avoid torrential downpours and high winds and stocking up on supplies for fear of shortages.

Honduras is on red alert, evacuating the Caribbean coast area and the Bahia Islands ahead of a forecasted 76 centimeters (30 inches) of rain that Iris is likely to bring to the area, triggering massive landslides, the hurricane center at the weather service said.

In Tegucigalpa, Honduras' emergency services coordinator urged northern residents not to panic after reports of runs on local supermarkets by hundreds of people.

Between 200,000 and 250,000 Hondurans are in the path of the storm, the head of operations for the emergency services agency told AFP.

Honduras, like Guatemala, was beset by power outages and downed phone lines as rain continued to fall as Iris brought storm surges of up to 5.5 meters (18 feet) above normal tide levels and massive waves battered the coasts.

About 5,000 Guatemalans were evacuated from their homes on the Caribbean coast.

Meanwhile, Mexican officials have evacuated fishing villages near the border with Belize, and ports have been closed due to strong winds. A tropical storm warning was also in effect for the east coast of the Yucatan to the border with Belize.

Authorities in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica said they also were monitoring the storm's progress.

One of the worst natural disasters in the history of Central America, Hurricane Mitch on October 26, 1998 reached category five status, the strongest possible rating for a hurricane, killing 20,000 people and causing 6.5 billion dollars in damages.

The storm brought torrential rains, flooding and mudslides that buried entire neighborhoods and villages in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.

The Atlantic hurricane season extends from June 1 to November 30. Hurricanes are extremely rare outside those dates.

bur-lg/fgf AFP

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Received by NewsEdge Insight: 10/09/2001 01:33:36

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