TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – Tropical Storm Ernesto doused Honduras and Belize as it churned through the western Caribbean on Tuesday and U.S. forecasters said it should strengthen into a hurricane before hitting Mexico’s tourist-center Yucatan peninsula.
Heavy rain poured over northern Honduras early Tuesday but there were no reports of damage, Roger Torres, deputy commissioner of the country’s contingency agency told Reuters.
Big ships were conducting business as usual on Honduras’ main Atlantic ports although authorities restricted fishing for small boats.
Hurricane warnings were raised for the entire coast of Belize as well as the eastern flank of Yucatan, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said, warning of possible flash floods and mudslides.
Ernesto had top sustained winds of 65 miles per hour (100 km per hour) on Tuesday morning and is forecast to become a hurricane before it reaches the Yucatan peninsula, the NHC said.
Forecasters expect Ernesto to move into the southern part of the Gulf of Mexico by Wednesday afternoon, but it was too early to know if it could disrupt oil and gas operations in the gulf.
It was expected to make landfall on Yucatan Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, with a dangerous storm surge raising water levels by as much as 2 to 4 feet. It would weaken as it moves across land, the NHC added.
Hurricane warnings – which mean steps to protect life and property should be “rushed to completion” – were issued for part of Yucatan’s east coast and the entire coast of Belize. Tropical storm watches and warnings were in effect for other parts of Yucatan, Honduras and the Bay Islands.
The peninsula is an important tourist destination for Mexico, including the resorts of Cancun and Cozumel at its northern tip. The hurricane warning extended to Punta Allen, just south of Cozumel, although high winds and rains were expected up to Cancun.
Rainfall amounts of 4 to 8 inches, possibly 12 inches in some areas, were expected over Belize and the southern part of Yucatan.
“These rains are likely to cause dangerous flash floods and mudslides over higher terrain,” the NHC said.
The Belize government declared a state of alert and urged residents on vulnerable islands to move inland and those in flood-prone areas to seek shelter.
Ernesto was centered about 250 miles east of Belize City, according to the Hurricane Center’s 8:00 a.m. EDT advisory.
August and September are usually the most active months of the Atlantic-Caribbean hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30.