New storm heading for U.S. leaves 22 dead in Central America

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Oct 07 2017 06:04 AM

Tropical Storm Nate gained strength Friday as it headed toward popular Mexican beach resorts and ultimately the US Gulf coast after dumping heavy rains in Central America that left at least 22 people dead.

Nate, which currently has 50 mile (85 kilometer) per hour winds, is forecast to reach hurricane strength by the time it makes landfall in the United States late Saturday on the north coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

New Orleans, where levees were breached during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and other cities on the US Gulf coast were under hurricane watch.

The US National Hurricane Center warned of possible "hurricane conditions" by Friday night on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, where Cancun and other Caribbean resorts are located.

By late Saturday, those fearsome winds could drive a "life-threatening storm surge" onto southern US states along the Gulf of Mexico.

"Nate is expected to make landfall... as a hurricane," the Center said.

As of early Friday, the storm was located directly offshore from Belize, just south of the Yucatan Peninsula, with winds of 85 kilometers (50 miles) per hour that were expected to strengthen.

"The main threat to Belize is expected to be mostly thunderstorms and heavy rain which are causing localized flooding," the country's government said in a statement. It warned people in low-lying areas to go to higher ground, and for boats not to venture to sea.

- Evacuations, mudslides -

On Thursday, intense rains from the storm forced thousands from their homes, uprooted trees, knocked out bridges and turned roads into rivers in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras.

Nicaragua bore 11 of the deaths, according to Vice President Rosario Murillo. 

In Costa Rica, where a national emergency was declared, eight people died, including a three-year-old girl, after they were hit by falling trees and mudslides. An alert was issued for people to be wary of crocodiles that might be roaming after rivers and estuaries flooded.

Three other people were killed in Honduras.

More than 30 people are listed as missing in the three countries.

Nicaragua's Murillo said that 800 people had been evacuated, nearly 600 homes were flooded and 14 communities were isolated because of rains that had been falling for days.

More than 5,000 people were put up in shelters in Costa Rica after having to abandon their homes because of flooding and the risk of unstable ground giving way. 

In the Gulf of Mexico, some offshore oil and gas rigs were evacuated ahead of the storm's advance, the US government Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said in a statement.

The United States is recovering from two major hurricanes: Hurricane Harvey that tore through Texas in August, and Hurricane Irma in September.

Another powerful storm, Hurricane Maria, ripped through the Caribbean in late September, wreaking destruction on several islands, including Dominica and Puerto Rico.

- Hurricane season -

Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico and the southern United States suffer an Atlantic hurricane season every year that runs from June to November.

The unstable weather brings heightened risk of flooding and mudslides in many poor Central American nations.

This year's season has been intense, with some areas in Central America getting up to 50 percent more rain than average for September and October.

Costa Rica declared three days of mourning for those killed by Tropical Storm Nate, and President Luis Guillermo Solis, warned that, although the storm had passed, it was too early to say the danger had gone.

"This situation is deceptive because it will rain this weekend and the ground is saturated, so landslides are possible," he said.