MIAMI, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Hurricane Mitch, one of the fiercest Atlantic storms on record, whipped the Caribbean on Tuesday with winds up to 180 mph (285 kph) and lashed the Central American coast with heavy rains that threatened to trigger deadly mudslides and flooding.
Mitch, among the strongest Atlantic storms recorded, was extremely dangerous and capable of causing "catastrophic damage," the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
It is significantly more powerful than Hurricane Georges, which killed more than 500 people in a rampage across the eastern Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico last month.
At 7 a.m. EST (1200 GMT), Mitch remained at least three days from landfall as it prowled west at 8 mph (13 kph) skirting the north coast of Honduras. It was located at latitude 17.4 north and longitude 85.2 west about 90 miles (150 km) north of Honduras.
The Belize government issued a hurricane warning for its entire coast. Warnings were also in effect for Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and the coasts of Guatemala and Honduras, as well as Honduras' small Swan Island.
"We're expecting 10 to 15 inches (25 to 38 cms) of rain over the mountains of Honduras and Central America, which will cause flooding and mudslides," NHC meteorologist Bill Frederick said.
"With strong winds and battering waves, they will definitely have coastal flooding."
Mitch grew into a rare, potentially catastrophic Category 5 hurricane, the highest rating on forecasters' Saffir/ Simpson scale of hurricane strength, on Monday.
Heavy rains were also reported on Tuesday over the Cayman Islands, Nicaragua and Panama, where one death was reported from flooding.
The storm was causing concern at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the space shuttle Discovery was due to blast off on Thursday with 77-year-old Sen. John Glenn aboard.
Gusty winds whipped up by Mitch could violate the safety rules for an emergency landing, shuttle weather officer Ed Priselac said.
Frederick said it was still not certain where Mitch might make landfall. The storm was expected to turn west-northwest later on Tuesday and begin to slow down.
Although it was likely to spare Honduras the worst, hundreds of people were evacuated from its Caribbean tourist islands as high winds, pounding waves and heavy rains from the powerful storm lashed its coast.
The nation's principal port, Puerto Cortes, north of Tegucigalpa, was shut down.
"Aid organizations, the army and police are on maximum alert through the country," said Dimas Alonson, a spokesman for the government's emergency commission.
In Guatemala, emergency officials were on alert. Air traffic was suspended in the northern provinces and boat traffic stopped along the country's short Caribbean coastline.
In tiny Belize, officials moved residents out of Mitch's possible path, evacuating islands off its northern shore and urging people in low-lying coastal areas and near rivers on the mainland to evacuate.
Government offices, schools and businesses were closed in the Cayman Islands, the British territory south of Cuba, hit by heavy rains and high winds from Mitch's outer bands.
More than 3,000 tourists and many residents took flights from the Caymans to anywhere not in Mitch's path on Sunday.
Cuban authorities began evacuating tourists and workers from islands off its southern coast as heavy winds and high seas began to be felt from Mitch's outer edge.
At least 500 foreign vacationers and hundreds more Cuban members of hotel staffs were taken off Cuba's Isla de la Juventud and Cayo Largo island, officials said. Waves up to 13 feet (four metres) high and winds up to 42 mph (67 kph) were reported.
Category 5 hurricanes, with maximum sustained winds exceeding 155 mph (250 kph), attack shore areas with pounding winds and rains that level many buildings, tear roofs off others and flood huge areas.
Only two hurricanes are known to have been Category 5 storms when they made landfall in the United States.
Forecasters said Mitch was among the five strongest hurricanes yet recorded in the Atlantic hurricane basin, which includes the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.
The strongest was Hurricane Gilbert, which devastated Jamaica, the Caymans, Martinique and parts of Mexico in 1988, killing 318 people.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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