TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Tropical Storm Michelle reached hurricane strength Friday, threatening western Cuba after killing eight people and forcing thousands from their homes in Honduras, Nicaragua and Jamaica.
Floods left 26 people missing and forced more than 115,000 out of their homes during four days of rain in Central America.
As rescuers rushed to reach people trapped by floods in Honduras, Hurricane Michelle moved north with wind speeds of 75 mph, threatening more flooding in Jamaica, Cuba and the Cayman Islands.
Cuba issued a hurricane watch for the island's western provinces. Officials there evacuated 35,500 students from low-lying areas and 500 tourists from the beach resorts of Cayo Coco and Varadero.
Michelle was centered in the Caribbean Sea about 175 miles north of Honduras, or about 290 miles south of the western tip of Cuba, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami reported. It was moving erratically at only 3 mph.
The storm was expected to pass near or over Cuba on Sunday, and then could take an eastward turn and threaten the Florida Keys, the Hurricane Center predicted.
The governor of the coastal Mexican state of Quintana Roo, home to the resort city of Cancun, placed authorities on high alert in case the storm changed course to the west.
Flooding killed two more people in Honduras on Thursday, officials said — bringing the toll there to six dead, 14 missing and more than 100,000 people forced from their homes. Two men were killed on Tuesday in Jamaica by floods and mudslides, and 12 people were missing in Nicaragua, where 15,000 residents fled their homes.
Honduras and Nicaragua were both devastated in 1998 by the much-stronger Hurricane Mitch, which killed 5,657 people and left $6.5 billion in damage.
"The situation is especially grave," because Honduras has received half as much rain in five days as it normally does in a year, said Ernesto Salgado, a spokesman for the National Meteorological Service.
Juan Bendeck, head of the country's National Emergency Commission, said relief workers were trying to reach 100 villages cut off by the flooding in Gracias a Dios province near the Nicaraguan border. There were reports that as many as 75,000 residents had been trapped for days there on rooftops or small patches of high ground.
Some of those trapped were reportedly surviving by eating the carcasses of drowned farm animals that floated by on the flood waters, civil defense authorities reported.
Thousands of people were evacuated in the city of La Lima, 120 miles north of the Honduran capital. Rescue workers used small boats to reach residents trapped on the roofs of their homes by floodwaters.