Tropical Storm Earl expected to become hurricane by landfall

A near-hurricane-force Tropical Storm Earl felled trees and power lines Wednesday as it bore down on the Bay Islands of Honduras and the Caribbean nation of Belize.

The approaching storm dumped rains on nearly all Honduras, where officials reported a fishing boat was hit by a large wave in the Caribbean and capsized. All 83 people on board were rescued.

Lisandro Rosales, head of the country's emergency commission, said there were reports of large numbers of downed trees and utility poles.

Schools and universities were closed across Honduras' Atlantic provinces, as were two commercial airports. Authorities rescued four families in the coastal city of Trujillo after a river jumped its banks.

The head of the country's emergency commission warned of torrential rains, particularly along the northern coast.

The storm was brushing by the popular tourist destination of Roatan Island in the afternoon.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Earl also threatened to bring heavy rains, flooding and high winds to Mexico and Belize.

In Belize, the government opened storm shelters and used radio and television broadcasts to urge residents of low-lying areas to move to higher ground. The shelters were still empty on Wednesday morning, however.

Officials also ordered the international airport in Belize City to close, as well as archaeological reserves and national parks. The Belize Tourism Board announced that cruise ship calls have been canceled for this week.

The government's chief meteorologist Dennis Gonguez, said the storm should begin affecting the country around 6 p.m. local time and will likely make landfall as a Category 1 hurricane.

Long lines of traffic formed at gas stations around the country as residents filled their tanks in advance of Earl's arrival. Stores were also busy with people buying water and food.

At The Palms Oceanfront Suites in San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, Ana Ico said the hotel began preparing two days ago and gave guests the option to evacuate to the mainland or stay at the hotel. About 12 guests have chosen to stay, Ico said.

"Some of them have decided to stay so what we're doing is we're giving them some water, flashlights and informing them as we get updated on the storm," she said. Other guests chose to move to the mainland.

Belize, Mexico and Honduras issued tropical storm warnings for some areas, and a hurricane warning was issued for part of Mexico.

The airport on diving destination Roatan off the coast of Honduras closed its airport Wednesday as heavy rains moved in.

On Sunday, Earl was a weaker tropical wave but knocked down power lines and started a fire that killed six passengers on a bus in the Dominican Republic.

Early Wednesday afternoon, the storm was centered about 55 miles east-northeast of Roatan, with maximum sustained winds near 70 mph and was moving west near 14 mph.

A storm is classified as a hurricane when its maximum sustained winds rise above 74 mph.