WEAKENED Chantal rumbles toward Gulf of Mexico

Wednesday, August 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHETUMAL, Mexico (AP) _ Chantal weakened as it churned a slow path across the Yucatan Peninsula, but forecasters warned that the storm could still develop into a hurricane once it hits the Gulf of Mexico's warm waters.

Forecasters downgraded Chantal to a tropical depression late Tuesday, a day after the storm hit land with near hurricane force, battering this city's shuttered homes and businesses, snapping power lines and hurling tree branches and debris through the air. About 2,000 people were forced to flee to hastily constructed government shelters but there were no reported injuries.

Chantal was creeping across the Yucatan at 7 mph early Wednesday, its winds reduced to 30 mph. Tropical storms become depressions when their winds drop below 39 mph, and are classified as hurricanes when they reach at least 74 mph.

The storm was expected to continue its methodic course and hit the Gulf of Mexico late Wednesday or early Thursday. The region's warm waters could breath new life into the storm.

``It's going to be a close call, but right now we think it's going to turn into a hurricane,'' said Eric Blake, a meteorologist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Authorities were preparing for the storm's second wind, putting emergency plans in place and closing ports and schools in the Gulf coast states of Veracruz and Tamaulipas. The Mexican weather service issued a tropical storm warning for Tamaulipas.

Mexican authorities said the storm was projected to stay on its current north-northwest track, a path which will take it over water for a longer time and make a hurricane likely.

If Chantal were to shift to a more westerly direction, it would spend very little time over water, greatly reducing the chances that it would re-strengthen, Blake said.

Tuesday morning, residents of Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo state on the border with Belize, emerged from their fortified houses to clear leaves and branches from their yards and rooftops.

State spokesman Eduardo Sadot said no one was injured when the storm came through. There was also almost no reported property damage. About 2,000 people were forced to evacuate along the Yucatan Peninsula and all but a few dozen left shelters to find their homes unscathed, Sadot said.

Schools across Quintana Roo were scheduled to resume classes Wednesday, after Chantal's high winds and heavy rains forced them to close their doors for two days.

Chantal emerged last Thursday as a fast-moving storm that drenched small Caribbean islands and resulted in two deaths in Trinidad.

The storm crashed inland on Mexico's Xcalak peninsula just east of Chetumal late Monday, churning up 13-foot waves before continuing northwest through the Yucatan.