Earl weakens to tropical storm, hundreds flooded out

Thursday, August 04, 2016

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PUERTO BARRIOS, Guatemala (AFP) – Hurricane Earl weakened to a tropical storm Thursday after hitting Central America with fierce winds and driving rain, and continued to cause evacuations amid persistent fears of flooding.

Terrified residents fled their inundated homes as the storm tore through the small Caribbean state of Belize and into neighboring Guatemala, knocking down trees and electricity lines.

Earl swept in from the Caribbean at hurricane strength, with 130 kilometer (80 mile) per hour winds, and struck just south of Belize's capital around midnight Wednesday (0600 GMT Thursday), according to the US National Hurricane Center (NHC).

In the Guatemalan town of Melchor de Mencos near the Belize border, housewife Lorena Leonardo, 42, and her family were among those displaced.

"We were so scared," she told AFP as she took refuge in a temporary shelter.

"The house filled with water. We have a baby and were afraid he would drown."

Authorities in the surrounding northeastern Guatemalan district of Peten said 350 people were affected in that area alone.

The storm weakened as it moved inland, and by 1200 GMT the NHC had downgraded it from a hurricane to a tropical storm with 105 kph winds.

Fears of more flooding persisted as 200 to 300 millimeters (eight to 12 inches) of rainfall were forecast for Belize, Guatemala and southern Mexico through Friday. Airports in the area were closed.

Belize's National Emergency Management Organization warned of a threat of flash floods and mudslides, as well as flooding in low-lying areas.

Earl was expected to dissipate further as it moves across northern Guatemala and southern Mexico, the NHC said.

Mexican authorities took no chances, evacuating 300 families living close to a river along the border with Belize in the southeastern state of Quintana Roo for fear of flooding.

More than 750 shelters were readied in the state in preparation for expected high winds.

Other southern Mexican states likely to be affected were Campeche, Tabasco and Yucatan.

Honduras had declared a red alert for the region of Bay Islands, off its Caribbean coast, but lifted it Thursday.

Guatemala evacuated about 100 people from Melchor de Mencos, said disaster response spokesman David de Leon.

In the northern Guatemala town of Puerto Barrios, military commander Colonel Nelson Tun told AFP that "patrols in vulnerable areas" were being carried out.

"We have identified high areas to where the population can evacuate before possible flooding," he said.

Guatemala in particular is prone to rainy-season flooding and mudslides that often prove fatal.

Its population, at 16 million, is much bigger than the 330,000 in Belize, Central America's only English-speaking country.

Guatemala's president, Jimmy Morales, late Wednesday offered Belize humanitarian aid and shelters along the border if needed.

That gesture was significant after months of tensions between the two countries following a shooting death of a Guatemalan boy by a Belizean border patrol in April.

The fifth named tropical storm of the 2016 season, Earl strengthened to a Category 1 hurricane on Wednesday, according to the NHC.

Category 1, the lowest of five grades on the hurricane scale, is described as having dangerous winds of between 119 and 153 kph that can rip off roofs, bring down trees and cause extensive damage to power lines.

Belizean public and private sector workers were permitted to go to their homes Wednesday to secure property.

Officials warned that people living on the ground floor "will experience flooding" and some older wooden buildings would likely be destroyed.

The authorities have opened 29 shelters.

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