Hurricane Karl heads inland toward central Mexico

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 18, 2010

VERACRUZ, Mexico (AP) — Hurricane Karl smashed into Mexico’s Gulf Coast on Friday, creating havoc in the major port city of Veracruz and forcing the country to shut down its only nuclear power plant and its central Gulf Coast oil platforms.

Karl’s eye had passed Veracruz by early afternoon and sustained winds dropped to 90 mph (150 kph) as it headed southwest toward central Mexico, according to U.S. Hurricane Center. It had sustained winds of 115 mph (185 kph) when it hit land at midday about 10 miles (15 kilometers) northwest of the city.

The storm caused widespread damage, knocking down hundreds of trees, billboards and power poles and upending cars, said Veracruz civil protection chief Isidro Cano Luna. Eighty percent of the city was without electricity. Cano said there had not been a storm like it since Hurricane Janet in September 1955.

Local forecasters said the storm dumped 8 inches (215 millimeters) of rain in the city in the first 90 minutes. Flights into Veracruz were cancelled, and public transit was shut down.

A stretch of coastal road farther north in Nautla was also washed out.

The storm was expected to steadily weaken as it moved inland, but was still a Category 1 hurricane as it passed over the state capital of Jalapa, 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the coast.

It was projected to slog across central Mexico, drenching Mexico City, after dumping 5 to 10 inches (254 millimeters) of rain across the central and southern Gulf coast region. Up to 15 inches (381 millimeters) was expected in parts of the flood-prone mountains of Veracruz, where a storm killed more than 300 people in 1999.

Rains in the mountain regions could cause flash floods and mudslides, the Hurricane Center said.

“We are releasing more water from the reservoirs, which could be overwhelmed by the rain,” said Veracruz state Gov. Fidel Herrera.

Mexico City officials put crews on alert and began preparing for Karl, which they said could still have the strength of a tropical storm for its forecast arrival at the capital Saturday.

State-owned Petroleos Mexicanos closed 14 production wells in the northern part of Veracruz state and evacuated workers from some oil platforms in the Gulf, the company said in a statement late Thursday.

Workers also were evacuated from the shuttered Laguna Verde nuclear power plant, Mexico’s largest electricity producer, along with residents in the nearby town of Farallon and in the coastal towns of Cardel and Palma Sola. The latter was reportedly hardest hit so far by flooding, with a resident saying that at least 20 families were trapped.

“We asked for help because right now we have no way to get out,” said Palma Sola resident Agustin Tlapa. “We’re totally flooded.”

About 80,000 people have had their homes damaged and nine people have been killed in flooding from heavy rains in southern Veracruz since Aug. 19. Officials expressed concern Karl could raise river levels again, just as some residents were thinking of returning to their homes.

Meanwhile, out in the Atlantic, Hurricane Igor’s top winds weakened Friday to 105 mph (165 kph) on a track that could take it over Bermuda by Monday. The island’s government issued a hurricane warning.

Farther east over the Atlantic, Hurricane Julia weakened slightly Friday, though remained a Category 1 storm with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph).

As a tropical storm, Karl hit Yucatan on Wednesday, downing tree limbs and causing power outages. The storm made landfall on the Mexican Caribbean coast about midway between the cruise ship port of Majahual and the coastal town of Xcalak.