TEGUCIGALPA Tropical Storm Ernesto doused Honduras and Belize with rain as it churned through the western Caribbean on Tuesday and U.S. forecasters said it should strengthen into a hurricane before hitting Mexico's tourist Yucatan peninsula.
Hurricane warnings were raised for the entire coast of Belize as well as the eastern flank of Yucatan, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said, warning of possible flash floods and mudslides,
Ernesto had top sustained winds of 65 miles per hour (100 km per hour) on Tuesday morning and could soon cross the 74 mph (119 kph) threshold to become a hurricane.
"Ernesto is forecast to become a hurricane before it reaches the Yucatan peninsula," the NHC said.
It was expected to make landfall on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, with a dangerous storm surge raising water levels by as much as 2 to 4 feet. It would weaken as it moves across land, the NHC said.
Hurricane warnings - meaning steps to protect life and property should be "rushed to completion" - were issued for part of Yucatan's east coast and the entire coast of Belize. Tropical storm watches and warnings were in effect for other parts of Yucatan, Honduras and the Bay Islands.
The peninsula is an important tourist destination for Mexico, including the resorts of Cancun and Cozumel at its northern tip. The hurricane warning extended to Punta Allen, just south of Cozumel, although high winds and rains were expected up to Cancun.
Rainfall amounts of 4 to 6 inches, possibly 12 inches in some areas, were expected over Belize and the southern part of Yucatan.
"These rains are likely to cause dangerous flash floods and mudslides over higher terrain," the NHC said.
The Belize government declared a state of alert and urged residents on vulnerable islands to move inland and those in flood-prone areas to seek shelter.
Ernesto was centered about 225 miles (365 km) east-northeast of Honduras' Roatan Island and had picked up speed slightly to churn west-northwest at 12 miles per hour (20 kph), according to the Hurricane Center's 2:00 a.m. EST advisory.
Heavy rains fell over coastal regions in Honduras, including Colon, Islas de la Bahia, Gracias a Dios and Atlantida.
Honduran authorities ordered fishing boats to return to the port of Cortes. The NHC said rainfall of 3 to 5 inches was likely along the northern coast of Honduras.
The forecasters expect Ernesto to move into the southern part of the Gulf of Mexico by Thursday, but it was too early to know if it could disrupt oil and gas operations in the gulf.
August and September are usually the most active months of the Atlantic-Caribbean hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30. (Reporting by Angus MacSwan in London, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Mike McDonald in Guatemala City; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)