Keith downgraded, Leslie brews in Caribbean
TAMPICO, Mexico, Oct 5 (Reuters) - Hurricane Keith was downgraded to a tropical storm as it headed up Mexico's Gulf coast on Thursday, having claimed at least 16 lives and caused some $200 million in damage during its rampage through Central America.
At 7 p.m. (0000 GMT on Friday), the storm's winds had weakened as it moved inland, the center being located in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, the U.S. Hurricane Center in Miami said.
An elderly man was electrocuted in the city of Tampico on Mexico's northeastern Gulf coast when he touched a live cable that had been blown down in his garden, a Reuters reporter on the scene said.
But the storm whistled quickly through the city, causing only moderate damage as it left traffic signs askew, some trees partially uprooted and billboards damaged. No other deaths or injuries from the storm were reported in Mexico.
Many of the 3,000 Tamaulipas residents who had been evacuated from their homes to 250 shelters statewide began to return to their houses by Thursday night.
With the exception of a small stretch of land spanning Tampico to La Pesca in Tamaulipas state, Mexico suspended all hurricane warnings and watches that had been in place for hundreds of miles of coastline.
Civil protection officials in Tamaulipas said Keith had ravaged telephone and electricity poles and trees throughout the state's sparsely populated coastline.
Keith's winds had ebbed to 65 miles an hour (105 kph) by Thursday night after gusting up to 105 mph (175 kph) earlier in the day, the Miami hurricane center said. The storm's center was some 35 miles (60 km) south of Ciudad Victoria and remained on a west-northwest track moving at 13 mph (20 kph).
While Keith was forecast to lose strength rapidly overnight, authorities warned that rainfall of up to 12 inches was possible, along with mudslides and severe flash floods.
In Veracruz state, the civil protection service reported that at least 175 people were given refuge in emergency shelters and officials were distributing water, milk and mattresses.
Keith had forced the closure of nearly all of Mexico's Gulf coast ports Thursday morning, including two key oil export facilities at Dos Bocas and Cayo Arcas in the southern end of the Gulf.
A spokesperson at state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) said production was normal, though officials would decide later on Thursday what to do about installations in the path of the storm.
CENTAM CLEANUP CONTINUES
Over the weekend, Keith reached the potentially devastating rating of Category 4 at its peak. It ripped through the tiny Central American nation of Belize with winds of 135 mph (215 kph) and caused 15 deaths in Belize, Honduras and Nicaragua.
The worst-hit areas were the Belize tourist islands of Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye, and the north of Belize, a former British colony nestled between Guatemala and Mexico.
The financial toll from Keith was estimated at $200 million in Belize, almost half the banana- and sugar-exporting nation's gross domestic product of $450 million, said Patrick Jones, the Belize government's chief communications officer.
Earl Arthurs of Belize's National Emergency Management Organization said most evacuees from Belize City had returnedhome, though San Pedro and Caye Caulker were still considered disaster areas with some 90 percent of roofs damaged.
"We're making sure that everyone is fed and has water" and the government is providing shelter and plastic sheets to cover damaged roofs, Arthurs said.
In Nicaragua, where most of the deaths occurred, the Civil Defense Service said on Wednesday many of the casualties came as people attempted to cross roads over swollen rivers. On Thursday, dozens of the 3,962 people evacuated began returning home, officials said.
LESLIE BREWING WEST OF BERMUDA
In the Atlantic, the mass of thunderstorms that drenched Miami earlier in the week strengthened into Tropical Storm Leslie in the Atlantic Ocean west of Bermuda on Thursday.
Those winds reached 40 mph (64 kph), crossing the 39 mph (62.4 kph) threshold to become a tropical storm.
Late on Thursday afternoon, Leslie was centered about 635 miles (1,016 km) west of Bermuda, near latitude 30.3 north, longitude 75.3 west. It was moving eastward at 12 mph (19 kph) away from the United States' mid-Atlantic coast. It was expected to strengthen and turn to the east-northeast by Friday, possibly brushing past Bermuda.
"Interests in Bermuda should monitor the progress of Leslie," hurricane specialist James Franklin said.
Bermuda Harbour Radio duty officer Scott Simmons said two cruise ships were leaving the island ahead of schedule on Thursday and Friday to steer clear of Leslie.
The storm dumped 15 inches (38 cm) of rain on southeast Florida in three days, twice the average rainfall for the entire month of October. The deluge flooded roadways, turned some neighborhoods into shallow lakes, left tens of thousands of people without power and contributed to two deaths.
Florida Power & Light Co said said 2,600 customers were still without electric power on Thursday, down from 65,000 earlier in the week.
President Bill Clinton signed a disaster declaration on Wednesday for southern Florida, freeing federal aid to augment state and local recovery efforts.