TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – Tropical Storm Richard strengthened on Saturday as it dumped rain on Honduras and was seen reaching hurricane strength before hitting Belize and Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula later in the weekend.
The storm was about 65 miles north of Cabo Gracias a Dios, a remote area known as Honduras’ and Nicaragua’s “mosquito coast” where indigenous groups live in wooden houses along rivers vulnerable to flooding.
Richard had top sustained winds of 65 miles per hour, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Some residents and tourists were evacuating from the mosquito coast area in Honduras as winds picked up, local civil protection officials said.
“Richard is expected to become a hurricane on Sunday,” the NHS said.
The 17th named storm in the Atlantic this year, Richard will likely barrel through southern Mexico and emerge in Mexico’s oil-rich Bay of Campeche as a tropical depression, the NHS said.
Some computer weather models forecast that it could then veer north toward the U.S. oil and natural gas production facilities in the Gulf of Mexico.
Honduras has issued a hurricane watch and a tropical storm warning for the coast from the Nicaragua-Honduras border westward to Limon, Honduras, the hurricane center said.
However, Honduras and Guatemala, Central America’s top two coffee producers, said on Friday the storm was not expected to directly hit the main coffee growing regions, although more wet weather could complicate the start of the harvests set to begin this month.
The coffee- and sugar-producing countries of Central America are recovering from damage to infrastructure and crops after serious storms this summer.
Richard was moving westward at 8 mph and could pass near the northern coast of Honduras on Saturday night before striking Belize and southeastern Mexico late on Sunday, the NHC said.
Slow-moving storms like Richard can cause devastating damage as they amble over land for several days dumping rain. Hurricane Mitch moved in slow motion over Central America in 1998 killing more than 11,000 people, mostly in flash floods and mudslides, and became the second most deadly Atlantic storm on record.
Elsewhere, the hurricane center pointed to a low-pressure system in the Atlantic off the west coast of Africa with a 20 percent chance of becoming a depression.
(Writing and additional reporting by Jason Lange in Mexico City, Editing by Sandra Maler)