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Sluggish Hurricane Keith swamps Central America with rain
CHETUMAL, Mexico (CNN) -- Hovering over the land like an unrelenting bully, Hurricane Keith pounded much of Central America early Monday with heavy rain and high winds that had coastal residents praying for relief.
At 5 a.m. EDT, Keith's center was located about 45 miles (70 km) east of Belize City and about 70 miles (110 km) south-southeast of Chetumal, Mexico, a city of about 250,000, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida. The storm has moved little for the past several hours.
Packing sustained winds near 100 mph, the storm was located near latitude 17.6 north and longitude 87.8 west. Forecasters said Keith, which began weakening after striking land Sunday, was expected to continue losing strength Monday.
A hurricane warning remained in effect for the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula and Belize from Cabo Catoche southwest to Monkey River Town. A hurricane watch remained in effect for the north coast of the Yucatan from west of Cabo Catoche to Progreso.
The storm battered Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and parts of Mexico. Authorities warned that Keith's rains and winds could produce life-threatening flash floods and mud slides.
With its slow motion, Keith was expected to dump rainfall of as much as 20 inches on some parts of Central America, forecasters said.
"The situation is pretty rough out there right now," said William Skeen, director of the Red Cross in Belize City, Belize's capital. "People really are in a frightened state at this time."
Meteorologist Eric Blake of the hurricane center told Reuters that forecasters expect Keith to head northwest eventually on a track that would carry it back into the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday.
Travel warning issued in Belize
On Sunday, wind gusts of 120 mph (192 km/h) sent pieces of roof through the air on Caye Caulker, a tiny island 19 miles (30.4 kilometers) east of Belize City, water taxi captain Martin Carrasco told Reuters over a wireless phone.
"It's really bad here. I'm right on the beach front. We're fighting it here and praying to the Lord that everything will go well," Carrasco said.
In Belize City itself, government spokesman Vaughan Gill said the westward-bound highway was jammed with cars fleeing strong winds and flooded streets. Gill said emergency officials were concerned about San Pedro, a tourist resort on Ambergris Cay off the coast.
"It got strong so quickly the seas were rough and boats couldn't get anyone out," Gill said. Contact with the resort over military radios brought reports of very strong winds.
The U.S. Department of State issued a warning Sunday advising U.S. citizens in Belize to leave the nation "as soon as it is safe to do so" because of flooding from the storm.
The department's travel warning said Keith had caused extensive flooding in Belize, and it urged U.S. citizens to stay in contact with the U.S. Embassy until they felt safe enough to travel.
In addition, the statement authorized departure for dependents of State Department personnel in Belize in "non-emergency positions." Peace Corps volunteers in Belize were moved to central locations away from flood prone areas.
5,000 people evacuated in Mexico
Mexican officials evacuated 5,000 people from low-lying areas around Chetumal, which borders Belize, and moved many into shelters.
"Right now we are evacuating the people who are in the periphery of the city and on the sea front," said Lt. Col. Alejandro Padron, of Quintana Roo state civil protection.
At the northern end of the Yucatan Peninsula, weather was calm in the tourist mecca of Cancun, but traffic was heavy around the airport as residents sought flights out.
A spokesman for Carnival Cruise Lines said one ship, the Celebration, had been headed for Cancun and Cozumel and was diverted instead to New Orleans, Louisiana.
He said officials were monitoring the storm to see if the itinerary of other ships would be affected.
The U.S. National Weather Service warned all people in the northwestern Caribbean and southern Gulf of Mexico to monitor the storm.
Storm surge flooding of 9 to 12 feet (2.7 to 3.6 meters) above normal tide levels was expected, along with large, battering waves, the weather service said.
'A mess, but all the tin roofs are on'
In Xkalat, a town of about 350 people five miles (8 kilometers) north of Mexico's border with Belize, the owner of Marina Mike's was inside his six-room hotel -- which he just finished building on the highest point in town -- planning to ride out the storm.
Winds were howling outside, but it appeared that no damage had been done, said Michael Braddock, who moved to Xkalat six years ago to avoid stress after a career as a wholesaler of computer hardware and software in the United States.
"It doesn't seem as intense as I thought it would be," Braddock said. "It's a mess, but all the tin roofs are on."
Xkalat is a fishing town that has never recovered from Hurricane Janet in 1955, which killed about 150 people, Braddock said. "People were tied to trees and stuff. The town never came back."
This time, few residents have chosen to stay. "The town is pretty much empty," he said.
Memories of Mitch
The effects of Keith were felt as far south as Nicaragua, where a rain-swollen river swept away a 16-year-old boy on Sunday. Officials evacuated more than 300 people from low-lying areas.
In El Salvador a 20-year-old man drowned in a river on Saturday and another 300 people were affected by flooding.
Officials in Nicaragua and Guatemala said Keith's unrelenting rain reminded them of Hurricane Mitch, the huge 1998 storm that devastated Central America with floods in which up to 10,000 people died.
On October 26 and 27, 1998, the massive storm roared into the region with sustained winds of 180 mph. An estimated 1.5 million were left homeless, and the livelihoods of many more were destroyed.
The winds were among the strongest recorded in Central America in the 20th century. Damage was estimated at $6 billion.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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