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Environment

Richard expected to become hurricane, hit Yucatan

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Richard strengthened on Friday as it churned toward Central America, triggering a hurricane watch along the Honduras-Nicaragua border still recovering from months of heavy rains.

The 17th named storm in the Atlantic this year will likely become a hurricane this weekend before hitting Belize and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on Sunday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center predicted.

The coffee- and sugar-producing countries of Central America are recovering from damage to infrastructure and crops after serious storms this summer.

Honduras issued a hurricane watch and a tropical storm warning for the coast from the Nicaragua-Honduras border westward to Limon, Honduras, the hurricane center said.

Packing 45 mile-per-hour winds, Richard was located about 130 miles east of Cabo Gracias a Dios, a remote area known as Honduras’ and Nicaragua’s “mosquito coast” where indigenous groups live in wooden houses along rivers vulnerable to flooding.

The storm was moving westward at 5 mph and some increase in forward speed was expected in the next couple of days, the center said.

Slow-moving storms like Richard can cause devastating damage as they amble over land for several days dumping rain. Hurricane Mitch moved in slow motion over Central America in 1998 killing more than 11,000 people, mostly in flash floods and mudslides, and became the second most deadly Atlantic storm on record.

“Some residents along the mosquito coast are evacuating voluntarily, but once the threat becomes more serious we will go into red alert and start forcing evacuations,” said Lizandro Rosales, head of Honduras’ emergency services committee.

He said some tourists were preparing to leave Honduras’ outlying Caribbean islands, also in Richard’s path.

COFFEE LIKELY SPARED

After crossing the Yucatan, the remnants of Richard could emerge in Mexico’s oil-rich Bay of Campeche before possibly tracking toward the U.S. oil and natural gas production facilities in the northern Gulf of Mexico, the NHC and some computer weather models forecast.

Honduras and Guatemala, Central America’s top two coffee producers, said the storm was not expected to directly hit the main coffee growing regions, but more wet weather could complicate the start of the harvests set to begin this month.

“We have to keep monitoring,” until the storm season ends around November 30, Guatemala’s emergency services spokesman David de Leon told Reuters.

“But we don’t want anymore (storms),” he said. More than 260 people have died in Guatemala this year in floods and landslides.

Honduras’ national coffee institute maintained its forecast of around 3.5 million 60-kg bags of exports for the 2010/11 season on Friday despite serious rains, an increase from the previous cycle which ended last month.

Elsewhere, the hurricane center pointed to two low-pressure systems in the Atlantic: one 100 miles southwest of the Cape Verde Islands with a 40 percent chance of becoming a depression, and another about 1,000 miles east of the eastern Caribbean Islands with a 10 percent chance of strengthening.

The weather models forecast the Cape Verde system would pose no threat to land, other than maybe the Cape Verde Islands, as it moves northwest in the Atlantic closer to Africa than North America over the next several days.

It was too soon for the weather models to project where the other Atlantic system, with a 10 percent chance of developing, would make landfall, if at all.

Additional reporting by Sarah Grainger in Guatemala City, Scott DiSavino in New York and Jason Lange in Mexico City; Writing by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Xavier Briand

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