ORANJESTAD, Aruba – Hurricane Felix rapidly strengthened into a dangerous Category 5 storm Sunday and churned its way into the open waters of the Caribbean Sea after toppling trees and flooding some homes on a cluster of Dutch islands.
Felix was packing winds of up to 165 mph as it headed west, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. It was projected to skirt Honduras' coastline on Tuesday before slamming into Belize on Wednesday.
A hurricane watch was issued for parts of Honduras, where authorities were keeping a close eye on the storm but had not begun any evacuations. Along the northern coastline, tourists were still lounging by the pool and enjoying the sun, hoteliers said.
In Belize, residents stocked up on water and food, and nailed boards over windows to protect against the hurricane's howling winds. Many who lived in low-lying areas were seeking higher ground.
On Sunday, Felix lashed Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire with rains and winds, causing scattered power outages and forcing thousands of tourists to take refuge in hotels. But residents expressed relief it did far less damage than feared as the storm's outer bands grazed the tiny islands.
"Thankfully we didn't get a very bad storm. My dog slept peacefully through the night," said Bonaire medical administrator Siomara Albertus, who waited out the storm in her home with her Labrador Retriever.
The storm forced tens of thousands of tourists and residents on the three islands to remain in their homes and hotels, stocked with water, flashlights and emergency provisions.
In Curacao, about a dozen homes in a low-lying area were flooded. In Aruba, there was little visible damage, although at least one catamaran snapped off its mooring and a house was damaged by a downed tree. A northern settlement had a temporary power outage.
Many Bonaire residents had prepared for the worst, installing storm shutters and hauling their boats ashore, but the storm's winds left little damage.
Felix became the second Atlantic hurricane of the season on Saturday evening, following Hurricane Dean, which left at least 20 dead in the Caribbean and carved out a destructive swath that stretched from St. Lucia to Mexico.
At 11 p.m. EDT, Felix was centered about 345 miles southeast of Kingston, Jamaica, and was heading west at about 24 mph, the hurricane center said.
On Saturday, Felix brought heavy rains and strong winds to Grenada as a tropical storm, ripping roofs off at least two homes and destroying a popular concert venue. No injuries were reported and Grenada's government was still assessing the damage.
Tropical storm watches were issued for Grand Cayman and Jamaica, which was battered by Dean on Aug. 19. A watch means tropical storm conditions could begin affecting the island within 36 hours.
"Remember that Hurricanes Mitch, Wilma and Michelle passed far from the island yet tropical storm force winds, waves and storm surge damaged coastal areas," said Barbara Carby, director of the Cayman hazard management office.
Rebecca Waddington, a meteorologist at the hurricane center, advised employees of oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico to monitor Felix's progress and said the storm could reach the area in four to five days.
Off the Pacific coast of Mexico, meanwhile, forecasters said Tropical Storm Henriette could strengthen to a hurricane by Monday, and officials issued a hurricane watch for the resort-studded tip of the Baja California peninsula, a vacation area popular with Hollywood stars and sea fishing enthusiasts.
Henriette dumped heavy rain on western Mexico on Saturday. In the resort city of Acapulco, three people were killed when a giant boulder fell on their home, and three more died when a landslide slammed into their house.
Rebecca Waddington, a meteorologist with the hurricane center, warned that both Felix and Henriette could shift course and said people in the general areas should remain alert even if they aren't in the storms' direct paths.
"Even if the forecast is perfect, that's only forecasting where the center of the storm is going to go," she said. "So everyone in the area needs to be aware of it, because the storms are quite large."