Monday, October 02, 2000

By Jorge Silva

BELIZE CITY (Reuters) - Hurricane Keith weakened on
Monday but still pounded the coast of Belize with
fierce winds that toppled utility poles and trees, and
torrential rains that flooded coastal areas.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said at 5 a.m. EDT
the very slow-moving storm had top winds near 100 mph.
More weakening was expected during the day as Keith
drifted north or northwest.

Heavy rains also inundated parts of the Yucatan
peninsula, eastern Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua.
"These rains could produce life-threatening flash
floods and mudslides," forecasters said in warning of
rainfall accumulations of between 15 and 20 inches
along Keith's path.

Forecasters also said it had received reports that
winds had sucked water out of the Bay of Chetumal to
the point where people could walk across it.

"This is an extremely dangerous situation because the
bay water can rapidly return. This is a potentially
deadly situation so take precautionary action now to
save your life," the hurricane center warned.

The latest information tracked the center Keith at
near latitude 17.6 north and longitude 87.8 west or
about 45 miles east of Belize City and about 70 miles
south-southeast of Chetumal Mexico.

Hurricane force winds, those exceeding 75 mph, extend
up to 24 miles from Keith's center.

A hurricane warning remained in effect for the east
coast of the Yucatan peninsula and Belize from Cabo
Catoche south to Monkey River Town. A hurricane watch
remained in effect for the north coast of the Yucatan
from west of Cabo Catoche to Progreso.

Forecasters reported that storm surge flooding of
between 9 and 12 feet above normal tide levels and
battering waves likely have occurred over parts of the
hurricane warning area.


Sunday, residents said winds of up to 115 mph,
battered shore dwellings. The chief port and largest
city, Belize City, was flooded and without power.
Belize is nestled between Mexico and Guatemala.

"The streets are 8 inches under water," said Abraham
Pena Honduran living in New Orleans who was in Belize
City for a vacation and business.

"We're in a very safe building, fortunately, but we're
very worried about other people in Belize. Their homes
are not very safe, and they say the water will
continue to rise. A lot of light poles have fallen
down, and it's dangerous to go out because you could
get electrocuted."

Wind gusts flipped pieces of roof through the air on
Caye Caulker, a tiny island 19 miles east of Belize
City, water taxi captain Martin Carrasco, 34, told
Reuters over a wireless phone.

"It's really bad here," he said, clearly distressed.
"I'm right on the beachfront. We're fighting it here
and praying to the Lord that everything will go well.
The sea is really rough, and some of the streets are

Keith, one of the fiercest storms of the year and the
seventh named hurricane of the Atlantic season, also
buffeted southeastern Mexico, where officials declared
an alert evacuated 5,000 people from low-lying areas
in Chetumal, a city of 250,000 people on Mexico's
border with Belize.

Prime Minister Said Masa of Belize, population
250,000, called for a price freeze Sunday after shops
were hit with panic buying.

In Chetumal, Mexicans were also moving into shelters
and heavy rains filled streets knee-deep with water.

Local residents reported that some shops had run out
of basic foods, such as meat, as people rushed to buy
provisions, and local authorities warned people to
remain in doors.

Sunday night, Chetumal appeared to be a ghost town
with all its shops and restaurants boarded up.
Disaster officials said 30 refugee centers had been
set up in schools to accommodate people living in
low-lying areas around the Bay of Chetumal.

Mexico's Format 21 news radio station said emergency
officials made contact with 49 people stranded on Cayo
Centro, a small cay off the Yucatan coast in the
Chinch reef, who were riding out the storm.

Officials in Nicaragua and Guatemala compared the
storm to Mitch, the huge 1998 hurricane that
devastated the region with floods in which up to
10,000 people died.

In Nicaragua, strong rains hit the western side of the
country. Officials declared a red alert on the
Pacific coast and evacuated 632 people in central and
western departments.

Nicaragua's National Emergency Committee reported the
death of a 16-year-old youth dragged into a river
Saturday 60 miles northeast of the capital, Managua.