Guatemala City (AFP) - A tropical storm, dubbed Earl and packing nearly hurricane-force winds, was to hit northern Central American countries Wednesday, prompting warnings and emergency planning by authorities.
Earl was moving slowly westward across the Caribbean and was expected to drive across the northern coast of Honduras and Guatemala on Wednesday and slam directly into Belize late Wednesday or early Thursday before moving into southeastern Mexico.
Honduras issued a red alert for its Caribbean island group the Bay Islands and closed airports and schools in the north.
Officials warned of winds of 118 kilometers (73 miles) per hour. If the wind force strengthens any more, Earl would be classified as a hurricane.
Belize's National Emergency Management Organization said Earl "is expected to deteriorate to hurricane conditions" by late Wednesday or early Thursday and warned of heavy rains.
It previously said extreme flooding, uprooted trees, power cuts and the destruction of "poorly constructed and older timber buildings" were likely.
Authorities in Belize will open several shelters early Thursday. They told non-essential government workers they could go home to secure their properties.
The US National Hurricane Center said Earl was moving westward at 22 kilometers per hour.
It said its winds were forecast to reach peak strength by the time it reaches Belize, and then weaken progressively as it moves inland, toward Mexico.
Very heavy rain in Belize and Mexico "could result in life-threatening flash floods and mud slides," it said.