Hurricane Richard Hits Belize; Could Reach Mexico’s Oil Fields

October 25, 2010

Hurricane Richard struck the tiny Central American nation of Belize Sunday, blowing roofs off houses and knocking out electricity as tourists and residents huddled in emergency shelters.

Richard, which made landfall just south of Belize City, was expected to weaken to a tropical depression and enter northern Guatemala Monday, continuing into southeastern Mexico and the southern Gulf of Mexico by late Monday or early Tuesday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

The storm, which is expected eventually to pass through Mexico’s main oil producing region in the Bay of Campeche, packed maximum sustained winds of 90 miles per hour (145 kph). It was centered about 30 miles west southwest of Belize City at 10 p.m. CDT.

“Our windows are shuttered so we can’t see anything, but the wind is howling fiercely,” said Myrna Harris, who moved all her guests and furniture to the second floor of the hotel she runs in Belize City.

Heavy winds doubled over palm trees on Belize’s coast, webcam images showed, and residents called a local radio station to report power outages and plead for help as rivers quickly rose.

Belize’s government said no injuries or deaths had been reported.

Before the storm touched land, hotels across southern Belize sent foreign travelers to inland shelters, the national tourism board said. Workers at some hotels chopped down fruit and coconuts from trees.

“We don’t want the fruit to become missiles during the storm,” said Rosario Villanueva, a security guard at a hotel in Placencia where guests were evacuated early on Sunday.

Richard will likely power through Belize and southern Mexico to enter the Bay of Campeche, where Mexico produces more than two-thirds of its 2.6 million barrels-per-day of crude output.

Most computer forecasting models appeared to suggest the storm would steer clear of major oil installations in the U.S. Gulf.

Mexico’s state oil company, Pemex, said it was watching the storm but had not evacuated any workers from its offshore platforms. Vessels continued to service the platforms late into Sunday night, Pemex said.

The storm would likely not strengthen again once it entered the Gulf, the NHC said. [IJ Note: the latest NHC bulletin has downgraded Richard to a tropical storm].

“We’re still operating normally and monitoring (the storm),” a Pemex spokesman said.

In September, Hurricane Karl forced a brief shutdown of 14 minor Mexican wells in the Gulf, with no significant impact on production.

In Belize, an impoverished country of about 330,000 people that will likely bear the brunt of the storm, families left flimsy houses and moved into shelters along the coast, said Noreen Fairweather, coordinator of the country’s emergency services organization.

“It could get dicey out there,” Fairweather said. She said no major damage had been reported beyond broken windows and roofs blown off a few poorly constructed homes.

Belize, a former British colony, is a popular destination for foreign tourists who are drawn to its lush jungles, palm-fringed cays and coral reef.

A storm surge will raise water levels by as much as 3 to 5 feet above normal tide levels in areas along the coast of Belize, with water levels beginning to subside early Monday, the NHC said.

Richard was a Category 1 hurricane, the lowest rank on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale.

Further up the Caribbean coast, Mexico evacuated residents from Mayan villages on the Yucatan peninsula where many of the poor live in thatched huts. The storm looked likely to spare the resort city of Cancun.

Richard was the 10th hurricane of the busy 2010 Atlantic storm season. Five of those hurricanes have been major, but the United States has escaped a significant landfall so far.

Earlier in the day, Richard knocked down trees and power lines on the islands off Honduras’ north coast, whose white sandy beaches are popular with foreign tourists.

Honduras’ coffee crop will likely not be affected by the storm, said Dagoberto Suazo, a board member of the country’s national coffee institute.

Honduran authorities said electricity had been knocked out in some areas and mudslides had cut off dozens of villages.

“Thank God we don’t have any serious damage or deaths or injuries,” said Lizandro Rosales, head of Honduras’ emergency services committee.

Richard will also cross through northern Guatemala, threatening to cause floods and mudslides, though the head of the country’s coffee growers’ association said the coffee crop would probably not be affected.

(Writing and additional reporting by Jason Lange in Mexico City; Further reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Miguel Angel Gutierrez and Robert Campbell in Mexico City and Sarah Grainger in Guatemala City; Editing by Paul Simao)

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