Belize Residents Batten Hatches as Iris Bears Down


Monday October 8 5:30 PM ET

Belize Residents Batten Hatches as Iris Bears Down
By Catherine Bremer

INDEPENDENCE, Belize (Reuters) - Belize residents with cars fled the coast on Monday, while the poor boarded up windows, bracing for the arrival of this season's strongest hurricane, charging toward the Central American nation.

Hurricane Iris, which has been upgraded to category four, was located at 165 miles southeast of Belize City with winds of 140 mph, the National Weather Service in Miami's webpage said at 1 p.m. local time.

Iris, described by the service as ``small but extremely dangerous,'' was expected to make landfall late on Monday or early Tuesday between the coasts of Belize, Honduras and Guatemala. It had originally threatened Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula but now appeared likely to skirt Mexico for Belize.

Authorities in Belize and Honduras were hurriedly evacuating coastal mainland areas and picturesque coral keys likely to be in the path of the hurricane's rampage.

Of the 5,000 inhabitants of Independence town, situated on the coast some 116 miles south of Belize City, about a quarter headed straight out. Wealthier residents left in jeeps piled with mattresses, cooking pots and household possessions.

But most people living in the key were too poor to own cars, and unable to get a place on the daily bus inland, so they were piling into the local school.

``We're just trying to stay calm, but nobody really knows how bad things could get,'' said Briton Matthew Merrill, 25, working with Operation Raleigh International, who was stranded in Independence.

``I don't imagine many of these buildings are going to make it. People are justifiably worried,'' he added.


Local residents left in Independence frantically hammered wooden boards onto windows and stocked up on food, causing pandemonium in the town's general store.

``We're staying here. We can't leave. We've nowhere to go,'' said local woman Midie, 38.

The Miami weather service said Iris was moving due west at 21 mph with hurricane force winds extending up to 15 miles from its center.

Storm surge flooding of 13-18 feet above normal tide levels was expected, along with dangerous large battering waves, the center warned.

Businessman Manuel Rodriguez, 53, who has lived through two hurricanes said: ``People are really scared. The worst thing is going to be the flooding. People who can't swim are going to drown. Everyone is just trying to find a good shelter.''

Guatemala's government issued a hurricane warning for its tiny Caribbean coast.

Iris killed three people in the Dominican Republic, where a house collapsed on Saturday after being battered by the storm, according to the Dominican Civil Defense Force.

Iris' rains lashed parts of Jamaica on Sunday but the storm largely spared the island.

The ninth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, Iris was upgraded Saturday afternoon from a tropical storm, meaning its maximum sustained winds reached or surpassed 74 mph.

In the southeastern Caribbean, Tropical Storm Jerry lost its punch and was downgraded to a tropical depression.

At 5 p.m. EDT it was centered 240 miles south of Ponce, Puerto Rico, and moving west-northwest with top winds of 30 mph, the National Hurricane Center, adding it would issue no more advisories unless Jerry strengthened.