World

Karl becomes hurricane, takes aim at Mexican Gulf coast in already rain-battered Veracruz

VERACRUZ, Mexico (AP) — Karl reached hurricane force in the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday and was expected to strengthen more before hitting Mexico's coast near a port and an oil hub Friday.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, said there was a possibility Karl could become a major hurricane with winds of 110 mph (175 kph) or higher before making landfall.

The Mexican government issued a hurricane warning for a 186-mile (300-kilometer) stretch of coast in Veracruz state, stretching northward from the city of the same name. On its predicted path, Karl could make landfall between Veracruz and the oil hub of Poza Rica.

Authorities in Veracruz state — whose southern half has suffered severe flooding over the past few weeks — braced for a hit on its northern coast, preparing sleeping mats, bottled water and other supplies for anyone taking refuge in shelters. Workers in Veracruz city cut dangerous tree limbs that could become flying debris.

In the beach town of Tecolutla, just south of Poza Rica, fishermen and operators of small tour boats began pulling their craft out of the water.

Some people boarded up windows with sheets of plywood, lashed down cooking gas tanks and reinforced doors and signs to prevent them from being blow away by the hurricane's wind, said Tecolutla's civil defense director, Edilberto Peralta.

"We are getting ready and warning people early, to avoid any loss of human life," said Peralta, whose town of about 25,000 people was lashed by Hurricane Dean in 2007 and severely flooded by a tropical depression in 1999. "We are ready to take drastic measures."

He said officials were considering whether any residents needed to evacuate their homes.

The port of Tuxpan was closed to small craft Thursday, and Port Capt. Gaspar Cime said larger vessels would be banned later in the day. Tuxpan has about 135,000 people.

By Thursday afternoon, Karl was centered 165 miles (265 kilometers) east-southeast of Tuxpan, with winds of 80 mph (130 kph). It was moving westward rapidly at about 12 mph (19 kph).

Farther to the east in the Atlantic, Hurricane Julia weakened to Category 1 on Thursday afternoon, with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph (140 kph). Hurricane Igor's top winds also weakened to 125 mph (205 kph) on a track that could take it over Bermuda by Monday.

Karl could cause storm surges of 6 to 9 feet (2 to 3 meters) and "large and destructive waves," as well as dump up to 15 inches (40 centimeters) of rain in some areas of Veracruz state, the U.S. Hurricane Center said in a statement.

Poza Rica, while slightly inland, houses important pipelines and natural gas- and oil-processing plants operated by the state-owned oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos. Pemex said it had no immediate plans to halt production at the plants because of the storm.

About 80,000 people have had their homes damaged and nine people have been killed in flooding from heavy rains in southern Veracruz since Aug. 19. Officials expressed concern Karl could raise river levels again, just as some residents are thinking of returning to their homes.

As a tropical storm, Karl hit Yucatan on Wednesday, downing tree limbs and causing power outages. The storm made landfall on the Mexican Caribbean coast about midway between the cruise ship port of Majahual and the coastal town of Xcalak.

Violeta Pineda, who has operated the Hotel Kabah Na's thatched-roof bungalows for 13 years, said waves were rolling about 25 yards (meters) onto the beach and eating away at a stretch of road that runs along the coast.

Electricity went out briefly around Majahual, which in 2007 took a near-direct hit from Category 5 Hurricane Dean, the third-most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever to hit land.

"This is nothing in comparison," Pineda said.

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Associated Press Writer Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.