BELIZE CITY – Hurricane Richard slammed into Belize's Caribbean coast just south of its largest city late Sunday, as authorities evacuated tourists from outlying islands and an estimated 10,000 people took refuge at shelters in the tiny Central American nation.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Richard's top winds were 90 mph (150 kph) — making it a Category 1 hurricane — when it made landfall about 20 miles (35 kms) south-southwest of Belize City, whose neighborhoods are full of wooden, tin-roof homes that are very vulnerable to winds.
"The winds are very strong ... it's getting stronger," said Fanny Llanos, a clerk at the Lazy Iguana bed and Breakfast on Caye Caulker, a low-lying island known for its coral reefs and crystal-clear waters, located just offshore from Belize City.
Llanos said that palm trees were bending over in the wind and it had become very noisy.
"All the windows are boarded, and this is a strong house so we will be here," she said, "but we are still afraid."
There were no immediate reports of injuries or deaths in Belize, but roads and some low-lying neighborhoods were flooded and some trees were toppled.
The hurricane center said Richard was moving west-northwest over central Belize late Sunday at about 9 mph (15 kph), and hurricane-force winds extended up to 15 miles (30 kms) from its center. It was expected to weaken as it headed over northern Guatemala and southeastern Mexico on Monday.
Belize City was devastated by Hurricane Hattie in 1961, prompting officials to move the capital inland to Belmopan. But Belize City is still the nation's largest population center, with about 100,000 inhabitants — a third of the country's population.
Official estimated that about 10,000 people had taken refuge at storm shelters in schools and churches located farther inland, including many in the capital, Belmopan.
Tourists had already been evacuated from Caye Caulker and nearby Ambergris Caye, but some local residents decided to ride out the storm.
Rafael Marin, the caretaker at the Anchorage Resort hotel, said strong gusts of wind were already hitting the island and its normally calm waters were being whipped into 3-foot (1-meter) waves lapping at the island's docks.
"We already boarded up everything, and we already got everything — office equipment and everything — stored in a safe place," Marin said. "We got all the tourists out, and get the whole place secured down."
But Marin planned to ride out the storm in the three-story hotel. He said he expected only some beach erosion and minor damage to homes, noting the island has been hit by more powerful storms in the past.
"The local people are advised to evacuate on their own, voluntarily," Marin said. "It's not really major, like a Category 3" hurricane.
Officials warned people living in flimsy homes or low-lying areas to evacuate, and shelters at schools and other public buildings began filling up.
Earlier, Richard dumped heavy rains on Honduras' Caribbean coast and the Bay Islands, including Roatan, which is popular with tourists and divers.
Observers reported winds of up to 58 mph (93 kph) on Roatan, and more than 90 people took refuge in shelters in the Bay Islands, which lie between Honduras and Belize.
Lisandro Rosales, the head of Honduras' Permanent Emergency Commission, said no deaths or injuries had been reported in Honduras so far.
But Richard's heavy rains did cause a landslide that blocked a highway in northern Colon province, cutting off about 15,000 residents in 40 small towns. Crews were working to clear the road.
Richard is expected to cross over the Yucatan peninsula and re-emerge in the Gulf of Mexico. Forecasters said it is likely to weaken and dissipate over Gulf waters.
Authorities said dangerous floods and mudslides were still possible in Honduras and declared states of maximum alert in four coastal provinces.