Hurricane Earl nears coast of Belize

Update, 11 p.m.: Hurricane Earl has slowed its westward trek slightly, but is poised to make landfall over Belize overnight, the National Hurricane Center said.

Storm 2016: Tracking map, outlook, more resources

In its 11 p.m. advisory, Earl’s top winds remain at 75 mph. The center was located about 40 miles east of Belize City, and the storm was moving west at about 15 mph. Earl’s minimum central pressure was 984 mb.

Forecasters expect 8 to 12 inches of rain over parts of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and the Yucatan peninsula through Thursday night, with isolated spots getting as much as 18 inches of rain.

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Update, 8 p.m.: Hurricane Earl’s rain bands have started to spread over Belize, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Forecasters say the storm’s top winds remain at 75 mph and it continues on its westerly path at 14 mph. Landfall is expected during the overnight hours.

Update, 5:05 p.m.: Hurricane Earl has formed in the Caribbean.

A special statement from the National Hurricane Center posted just after the 5 p.m. update says a NOAA Hurricane Hunter plane has found winds of 75 mph.

Earl is the first hurricane of the 2016 hurricane season and the second of the year, following oddball Alex in January.

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Previous story: Tropical Storm Earl is making a beeline for Belize, a cruise ship hub and coastal country that has not been hit by a hurricane since 2010.

While still tropical storm-strength with 70-mph winds as of 5 p.m., Earl is forecast to strengthen before landfall and could become a Category 1 hurricane as it nears Belize City.

The National Hurricane Center expects Earl’s maximum sustained winds to reach 80 mph as it reaches the coast late tonight or early Thursday morning.

Check The Palm Beach Post radar map.

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Earl is running out of time to gain hurricane status, but forecasters remain confident it still has room to intensify.  NOAA and Air Force hurricane hunter plans are continuing missions into the storm.

Weather Underground co-founder and meteorologist Jeff Masters said Earl should be helped by near by deep warm water near the shore. While sea-surface temperatures of at least 80 degrees are needed for tropical cyclone formation and development, deeply warm waters help sustain storms even more because the water churned up is also warm.

“Typically, storms that approach landfall begin to undergo interaction with land that causes a slowdown in intensification or weakening,” Masters said in a blog. “However, storms in the Western Caribbean often undergo intensification right up until landfall, due to the extremely warm waters with high heat content that lie along the coast.”

Tropical Storm Earl heads toward Belize.

Tropical Storm Earl heads toward Belize.

Check the Palm Beach Post’s interactive hurricane tracking map. 

At 5 p.m., Earl was about 150 miles east-southeast of Belize City traveling at 14 mph.

“Earl has become a large cyclone, and tropical storm force winds extend outward up to 140 miles primarily to the  northeast,” hurricane center forecasters wrote.

Earl is already hitting the Honduras Bay Islands with landfall in Belize expected tonight or early Thursday.

Belize has not been hit by a hurricane since 2010’s Category 2 Hurricane Richard, which caused more than $17 million in damage and destroyed the entire grapefruit harvest for that year.

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While wind speeds were expected to peak at 80 mph, hurricane experts were just as concerned Wednesday with the amount of water that could be pushed ashore by Earl’s pounding waves. Although Belize City doesn’t suffer the same shallow run-up of the continental shelf like Tampa, it is bisected by a river that could funnel water far inland.

The National Hurricane Center forecast storm surge that could raise water levels by as much as 4 to 6 feet above normal tide levels in Belize and the eastern Yucatan Peninsula.

“We’re concerned and are really preparing because it’s better to be safe than sorry,” said Sharon Maddison, owner of the Mariposa Restaurant and Beach Suites, which is on the water in Placencia, Belize. “I’m going all out boarding up.”

A hurricane shelter is seen in this April 2016 picture in Placencia Belize. In 2001, Category 4 Hurricane Iris destroyed 95 percent of the buildings in Placencia.

A hurricane shelter is seen in this April 2016 picture in Placencia Belize. In 2001, Category 4 Hurricane Iris destroyed 95 percent of the buildings in Placencia.

In 2001, Category 4 Hurricane Iris destroyed 95 percent of the buildings in the nascent tourist hub of Placencia, which is south of Belize City.

Maddison said many Placencia residents are taking Earl in stride, but with 16 guests in her beachfront villas, she spent Wednesday hanging plywood. Just South of Mariposa, Francis Ford Coppola’s Turtle Inn was evacuating guests to a sister resort in the western part of the country.

“Maybe the locals are not as worried,” Maddison said. “They probably think I’m a crazy lady.”

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Update 8 a.m.: Tropical Storm Earl has strengthened to 70 mph winds as it heads west at 14 mph toward the Yucatan Peninsula.

The storm, which formed yesterday, is expected to reach hurricane force by the time it hits the coast of Belize late tonight or early Thursday morning.

If Earl gains hurricane status, it will be the first hurricane of the 2016 storm season, but the second this year following January’s Hurricane Alex.

Check The Palm Beach Post radar map.

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The storm’s minimum central pressure dipped to 989 this morning, as measured by a NOAA Hurricane Hunter aircraft.

A hurricane warning is in effect for Puerto Costa Maya, Mexico south to the border of Belize and Guatemala. A hurricane warning means that hurricane conditions are expected somewhere within the warning area.

Palm Beach Post interactive hurricane tracking map. 

In the case of Earl, hurricane conditions should occur within the next 24 hours.

Hurricane center forecasters are warning that tropical storm conditions are expected to reach Honduras this morning, making outside preparations difficult and dangerous.

One of the biggest concerns with Earl is torrential showers that could dump as much as 12 inches of rain over portions of Belize, Honduras and Guatemala. Isolated areas may see rain as high as 16 inches.

2016 Atlantic hurricane season storm names. 

“These rains could result in life-threatening flash floods and mud slides,” forecasters note.

Storm surge could raise water levels as much as five feet above normal tides along the coast of the Honduras Bay Islands, Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula.

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Previous story:

The National Hurricane Center said Tropical Storm Earl has slowed its forward speed to 14 mph, allowing for winds to pick up to 65 mph as it heads toward Belize.

As of 5 a.m., center forecasters said Earl is expected to become a hurricane before making landfall late tonight or early tomorrow.

The storm is about 315 miles east-southeast of Belize.

Check The Palm Beach Post radar map.

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If Earl gains hurricane status, it will be the first hurricane of the 2016 storm season, but the second this year, following Alex in January.

A NOAA Hurricane Hunter is heading into the storm this morning.

The storm is expected to weaken significantly after landfall, but reform some as it reaches the Bay of Campeche before a second landfall in mainland Mexico as a tropical storm.

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Forecasters expect Earl’s maximum wind speeds to reach 80 mph in about 24 hours.

A hurricane warning is in effect for Puerto Costa Maya, Mexico, south to border between Belize and Guatemala.

Earl’s forward reduction in speed means it is spending more time over very warm waters, which feed tropical system development.

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Tropical systems need sea surface temperatures of at least 80 degrees to maintain strength. In the central and western Caribbean Sea, the temperatures are closer to 84 degrees, especially right next to the coast of Belize.

Find everything you need to know about the 2016 storm season here. 

Earl already whacked the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. At least six deaths in the Dominican Republic are attributed to the storm.

AccuWeather said Earl’s window for hurricane winds is small, but significant gusty winds and heavy rainfall will reach parts of Honduras and Nicaragua starting today.

“Once the system begins to interact with land, especially the higher elevations of Belize and Honduras, the system will struggle to remain organized,” AccuWeather notes.

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