Hurricane Iris becomes strongest Atlantic storm of 2001; heads for Central America

Monday, October 8th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) _ Hurricane Iris strengthened into the Atlantic's most powerful hurricane of the year as it advanced across the Caribbean toward Central America Monday, bringing winds of up to 140 mph.

The storm brushed past Jamaica on Sunday with 85 mph winds that toppled some trees, tore off roofs and left at least one person injured. Three people were killed on Saturday when the hurricane passed through the Dominican Republic.

The hurricane's winds strengthened dramatically as the storm moved over open water. Hurricane conditions were expected in Belize, Guatemala and northern Honduras on Monday night.

``This is an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane,'' said Richard Knabb, a meteorologist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. ``This is going to cause extensive damage wherever it makes landfall.''

The second-strongest hurricane of the Atlantic season, Erin, had winds that reached 120 mph in September. It sideswiped Bermuda before dissipating in the Atlantic.

A Category 4 hurricane like Iris has winds between 131 mph and 155 mph. Hurricane Mitch in 1998 was a Category 5 hurricane, with winds greater than 155 mph. When it struck Honduras, Mitch left 5,657 dead, more than 8,000 missing, 12,000 injured and $6.5 billion in damages.

In the Pacific this year, Hurricane Juliette had winds of 145 mph in late September before it made landfall in Baja California, killing three and driving tens of thousands from their homes.

Iris was expected to bring a storm surge of 13-18 feet above normal tide levels and large battering waves. Forecasters said rainfall of 5-8 inches could cause flash floods and mudslides.

``I'm glad we got out of it,'' said Jamaican store owner Vivia Clarke said after the hurricane passed south of Jamaica on Sunday.

At 11 a.m. EDT, Hurricane Iris was about 225 miles east of Belize City, Belize. The hurricane was moving westward at about 20 mph.

Hurricane-force winds extended 15 miles from the center, making it a particularly small hurricane, forecasters said. Tropical storm-force winds reached out to 115 miles.

A hurricane warning was in effect for the Caribbean coasts of Belize, Guatemala and Honduras from its border with Guatemala eastward to Limon.

In Mexico, the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula from Cabo Catoche southward was under a hurricane watch. Mexico also issued a tropical storm warning for the east coast of the Yucatan from Felipe Carrillo Puerto southward to the border with Belize.

On Saturday, Iris killed a mother and her two young daughters in the Dominican Republic when a retaining wall collapsed, crushing their house.

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Jerry was following in the path of Iris Monday with winds of about 50 mph. The storm brought rain to St. Vincent and the Grenadines when it passed during the night.

Jerry was forecast to become a hurricane, with sustained winds of 74 mph or greater, as it continued on a path roughly toward Jamaica, Knabb said. He said it was too early to say which islands might be threatened.

``Anyone in the northern Caribbean Sea ought to be watching this one,'' he said. As of 11 a.m. EDT, Jerry was about 285 miles south-southeast of Puerto Rico. It was moving toward the west-northwest at about 16 mph.

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