PANAMA CITY – Late-season storm Otto strengthened into a hurricane Tuesday as civil defense officials reported three deaths in Panama amid heavy rain and Costa Rica ordered the evacuation of 4,000 people from its Caribbean coast.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Otto was likely to gain strength as it headed for an expected Thursday afternoon landfall around the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border. It could become the first hurricane to make landfall in Costa Rica since reliable record-keeping began in 1851.
The storm caused heavy rains in Panama as it moved off that nation's northern coast, and officials blamed Otto for three deaths.
Jose Donderis, Panama's civil defense director, said a landslide just west of Panama City early Tuesday trapped nine people. Seven were rescued but two were pulled from the mud dead. In the capital, a child was killed when a tree fell on a car outside a school.
The country "faces one of the worst meteorological situations, with imminent risk," Donderis said.
Panama announced it was cancelling classes and it began to release water from locks and lakes feeding the Panama Canal.
Costa Rica's National Emergency Commission said it was evacuating 4,000 people from the area where the storm was expected to hit and where rivers could overflow. The effort was expected to involve evacuations by plane, boat and road in the low-lying coastal areas.
Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis said Otto could damage the country's important coffee and agriculture sectors.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the hurricane had top sustained winds of 75 mph and was moving westward at 2 mph, the U.S. hurricane center said. Otto was centered about 235 miles east of Limon, Costa Rica.