Hurricane Felix nears Central America, tourists are evacuates

Hurricane Felix rapidly strengthened into a dangerous Category 5 storm and drove through the Caribbean Monday toward Central America, where forecasters said it could arrive as a "potentially catastrophic" storm.

Felix had sustained winds near 265 kph (165 mph) as it headed west, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. It was projected to rake Honduras' coastline on Tuesday before slamming into Belize on Wednesday.

Tourists crammed Honduran airports seeking flights out before the storm, but some locals said they would ride it out.

"The tourists, they're evacuating. We're staying here," said Estella Marazzito, who works at a real estate company on the Caribbean resort island of Roatan. "It's not like the island is going to be totally empty.

"At this moment, it's what they call the calm before the storm. There isn't even a breeze," she said, but added, "We know it's a tremendous hurricane that's coming."

In Belize, residents stocked up on water and food, and nailed boards over windows. Many who live in low-lying areas were moving to higher ground.

And many were still cleaning up from last month's Hurricane Dean, which caused an estimated US$100 million (Ђ75 million) in damage, mostly to agriculture.

"I stopped cleaning debris and trees from my yard (because it) might just get messed up again," said Wayne Leonardo.

On Sunday, Felix toppled trees and flooded some homes on the Dutch islands of Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire in the southern Caribbean. Heavy rains and winds caused scattered power outages and forced thousands of tourists to take refuge in hotels, but it did less damage than feared as the storm's outer bands grazed the tiny islands.

"Thankfully we didn't get a very bad storm. My dog slept peacefully through the night," said Bonaire medical administrator Siomara Albertus, who waited out Felix at home with her Labrador retriever.

In Aruba, there was also little visible damage, although at least one catamaran snapped off its mooring, a house was damaged by a downed tree and power was temporarily knocked out in a northern town.

Felix is the second Atlantic hurricane of the season following last month's Hurricane Dean, which killed at least 28 people as ploughed through the Caribbean and then slammed into Mexico as a Category 5 storm.

At 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT) Monday, Felix was centered about 260 miles (425 kilometers) south of Kingston, Jamaica, and about 425 miles (685 kilometers) east of Cabo Gracias a Dios on the Nicaragua-Honduras border. It was moving west at about 21 mph (33 kph), the hurricane center said.

The hurricane center said Felix could dump up to 12 inches (30 centimeters) of rain in isolated parts of northern Honduras and northeastern Nicaragua, possibly bringing flash floods and mudslides.

It was projected to slash across Guatemala's Peten region and southern Mexico, then emerge in the southern Gulf of Mexico, an area dotted with major oil drilling platforms.

Off Mexico's Pacific coast, meanwhile, Tropical Storm Henriette was forecast to strengthen to a hurricane before hitting the resort-studded tip of the Baja California Peninsula on Tuesday.

With maximum sustained winds at near 105 kph (65 mph,) Henriette has been lashing the western coast of Mexico, causing flooding and landslides that killed six in Acapulco. Three were killed when a giant boulder fell on their home, and three more died when a landslide slammed into their house.

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