Earl downgraded to tropical storm after drenching Belize




BELMOPAN, Belize (AP) — Hurricane Earl was downgraded to a tropical storm early Thursday after slamming into the coast of the Caribbean nation of Belize with winds of 80 mph (130 kph) and moving inland over Guatemala and Mexico with heavy rains.

Earl made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane near Belize City and was moving roughly westward, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. As it crossed northern Guatemala, Earl had sustained winds near 65 mph (105 kph). It was expected to continue weakening to a tropical depression by Thursday night or Friday morning.

Mexico discontinued all warnings associated with the storm and Belize replaced its hurricane warning with a tropical storm warning. The storm was centered about 90 miles (145 km) west of Belize City and was moving west near 15 mph (24 kph).

Hotels along Belize's coast and the low-lying islands offshore had already pulled in awnings and beach chairs as the rains from the storm began whipping the coast Wednesday evening.

Authorities in the Mexican coastal state of Quintana Roo, to the north of the hurricane's strike, reported some evacuations. Some people evacuated low-lying coastal areas in nearby Guatemala.

The hurricane center said heavy rains would be a danger in southern Mexico through Saturday as Earl crosses the Yucatan Peninsula into the states of Tabasco and Veracruz.

On Wednesday, Earl raked the northern coast of Honduras with heavy rain. Officials said a big wave capsized a lobster fishing boat in the Caribbean, but all but two of the 83 people on board were rescued. The navy was looking for the two missing. Authorities also rescued four families in the coastal city of Trujillo after a river flooded.

Lisandro Rosales, head of Honduras' emergency commission, said there were reports of large numbers of trees and utility poles being knocked down. Schools and universities closed across Honduras' coastal provinces, as did two commercial airports.

In Belize, the government opened storm shelters and used radio and television broadcasts to urge residents of low-lying areas to move to higher ground.

Officials also ordered the international airport in Belize City to close, and archaeological reserves and national parks were shut. The Belize Tourism Board announced that cruise ship calls had been canceled for this week.

Employees of the Caribbean Villas Hotel, in San Pedro on Belize's Ambergris Caye, pulled in beach chairs and chaise longues as rain began to fall on the popular beach resort.

"Anything that's not anchored in, we've pulled back and out of the way," said hotel manager Paul Jewitt.

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Associated Press writers Freddy Cuevas in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.
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