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 US National Hurricane Centre 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 neighbourhoods 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."
The hurricane centre 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 centre. 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 centre, 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.