Hurricane Richard batters Belize with rain, howling winds, then weakens to depression

BELIZE CITY (AP) - Hurricane Richard battered Belize, blowing rickety homes off stilts and knocking out power to most of the tiny Central American country, before weakening to a tropical depression Monday and heading toward Mexico.

Richard made landfall as a hurricane Sunday night just south of Belize City, knocking down thousands of trees and power lines. Thousands of homes lost their roofs or suffered severe damage. Some flimsy wood-and-tin houses were blown off the stilts that hold them above soggy or flood-prone land.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow said in a national address Monday morning that the damage was in the millions of dollars, though he did not have an exact estimate.

An estimated 10,000 people in Belize took refuge at storm shelters in schools and churches ahead of the arrival of the storm, and there were no reports of deaths.

Donna Young, a Belize City resident, said she huddled in a corner with her four dogs as her house shook furiously in the wind all night long.

"I thought I was going to die," she said repeatedly Monday morning, fighting back tears.

By Monday morning, the storm was a tropical depression with winds near 35 mph (55 kph), according to the U.S. national Hurricane Center in Miami. Additional weakening was expected as it heads into Mexico.

Richard was centered about 145 miles (235 kilometers) south of Campeche, Mexico, and was moving west-northwest near 8 mph (13 kph). The depression's center is expected to enter the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday morning.

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 center, with about 100,000 inhabitants — a third of the country's population.

Tourists had already been evacuated from Caye Caulker and nearby Ambergris Caye, but some local residents decided to ride out the storm.

"We got all the tourists out, and get the whole place secured down," said Rafael Marin, the caretaker at the Anchorage Resort hotel.

Earlier, Richard dumped heavy rains on Honduras' Caribbean coast and the Bay Islands, including Roatan, which is popular with tourists and divers.

Observers reported winds of up to 58 mph (93 kph) on Roatan, and more than 90 people took refuge in shelters in the Bay Islands, which lie between Honduras and Belize.

Lisandro Rosales, the head of Honduras' Permanent Emergency Commission, said no deaths or injuries had been reported in Honduras.

But Richard's heavy rains did cause a landslide that blocked a highway in northern Colon province, cutting off about 15,000 residents in 40 small towns. Crews were working to clear the road.

Live and let live