* Honduras prepares shelters for up to 50,000 people
* Remnants could reach oil platforms in Gulf of Mexico
* Central American coffee, sugar producers at risk (Adds evacuations, updates storm position)
By Gustavo Palencia
TEGUCIGALPA, Oct 23 (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Richard strengthened on Saturday as it dumped rain on Honduras and was seen reaching hurricane strength before hitting Belize and Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula later in the weekend.
The storm was about 175 miles (280 km) east of the Honduran port city of La Ceiba after brushing past the remote Miskito coast region where indigenous groups live in wooden houses along rivers vulnerable to flooding.
Richard had top sustained winds of 65 miles per hour (100 kph) and would likely barrel through southern Mexico and emerge in Mexico’s oil-rich Bay of Campeche on Tuesday as a tropical depression, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Richard, the 17th named storm in the Atlantic this year, might eventually veer north toward U.S. oil and natural gas production facilities in the Gulf of Mexico, according to forecasts by some computer weather models.
Honduran authorities said they were evacuating residents and tourists from several coastal areas.
“(We will) evacuate between 3,000 and 4,000 people that live in coastal zones where there could be a storm surge and heavy winds,” said Randolfo Funez, an emergency response official.
Richard was moving westward at 8 mph (13 kph) and could pass near the northern coast of Honduras on Saturday night before striking Belize and southeastern Mexico late on Sunday, the Miami-based hurricane center said. Honduras and Belize issued hurricane warnings, and Mexico started evacuating fishermen on the Yucatan peninsula.
“Richard is expected to become a hurricane on Sunday,” the hurricane center said.
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Mexico’s state oil company said it was watching the storm as it drew closer to the Bay of Campeche, where Mexico produces more than two-thirds of its 2.6 million barrels-per-day of crude output.
“We’re on alert but no measures have been taken (to modify operations before the storm),” said a spokesman for the company, known as Pemex.
Tropical storms and minor hurricanes rarely cause serious damage to Pemex’s oil installations.
Honduras and Guatemala, Central America’s top two coffee producers, have said the storm was not expected to hit the main coffee-growing regions directly, although more wet weather could complicate the start of the harvests set to begin this month.
The coffee- and sugar-producing countries of Central America are recovering from damage to infrastructure and crops after serious storms this summer.
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.
Elsewhere, the hurricane center pointed to a low-pressure system in the Atlantic off the west coast of Africa with a 10 percent chance of becoming a depression. (Additional reporting by Isela Serrano in Cancun, Mexico; Writing by Jason Lange; Editing by Jerry Norton)