Ernesto becomes a hurricane before landfall in Mexico

CANCUN/CHETUMAL, Mexico Wed Aug 8, 2012 3:14am IST

CANCUN/CHETUMAL, Mexico (Reuters) - Ernesto strengthened into a hurricane on Tuesday just hours before it was predicted to make landfall on the southern part of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, home to popular tourist destinations.

Ernesto had top sustained winds of 80 miles per hour and was located 140 miles east of Chetumal, Mexico, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said in its 5:00 p.m. EDT advisory.

By mid-afternoon Chetumal's working class neighborhood of Lazaro Cardenas was flooded with five inches of water, but many residents said they preferred to stay in their cinder block and wood homes.

"This is normal. It is not the first time that a hurricane has come through here," said Carmen Salis, 19, standing outside her house.

Ernesto is forecast to arrive in the southern Gulf of Mexico, where state oil company Pemex has port facilities and offshore platforms, late on Wednesday. Pemex has said it was keeping an eye on the hurricane but there were no reports of evacuations or shipping restrictions.

Earlier on Tuesday, authorities from the Mexican state of Quintana Roo ordered the evacuation of some 1,500 people in the southern portion of the state, known for its scuba diving and eco-tourism attractions.

"These are just precautionary measures," said worker Francisco Velazquez, who led a group of five men wearing raincoats and wielding hammers and nails as they boarded windows at a government office in Chetumal.

While the eye of Ernesto is not expected to hit the region's major resort of Cancun, some rain fell in the area, which is packed with local and international visitors this time of the year.

CRUISE SHIPS DIVERTED

Tourism officials said they were not evacuating any of Cancun's tourist area, although hotel staff were removing potential projectiles from the beaches.

Authorities also declared alcohol bans in the towns of Tulum and Felipe Carrillo Puerto and Chetumal airport was closed to all flights from mid-afternoon.

Cancun, some 230 miles to the north of the storm's forecast path, was devastated in 2005 by Hurricane Wilma, the most intense storm ever recorded in the Atlantic.

"The center of Ernesto is forecast to move across the Yucatan peninsula late tonight and early Wednesday, and emerge over the Bay of Campeche by Wednesday afternoon or evening," the NHC said. Ernesto is a category one hurricane, the lowest on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.

Hurricane warnings were extended northwards to the resort island of Cozumel from Chetumal and include the entire coast of low-lying Belize. A tropical storm warning remained in effect for the Atlantic coasts of Honduras and Nicaragua.

One cruise ship which was due to dock at Cozumel on Wednesday canceled its visit and another was diverted to Veracruz, in the Gulf of Mexico.

Heavy rain hit northern Honduras early Tuesday but there were no reports of damage.

Rainfall of four to eight inches, and possibly 12 inches in some areas, was expected over Belize and the southern portions of the Yucatan peninsula.

Belize's government said 175 residents of outlying islands had voluntarily moved to safer ground, and 21 emergency shelters had opened to house evacuees.

August and September are usually the most active months of the Atlantic-Caribbean hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30.

(Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia on Tegucigalpa, Mike McDonald in Guatemala City and Cyntia Barrera in Mexico City; Editing by Krista Hughes, Eric Walsh and Jackie Frank)

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