- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2001

CHETUMAL, Mexico Tropical Storm Chantal dragged its weakened feet across the Yucatan Peninsula yesterday, nearly coming to a halt over land. But forecasters expected it to develop into a hurricane once it hits the Gulf of Mexico.
Residents of Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo, on the border with Belize, emerged from their fortified houses yesterday morning to clear leaves and branches from their yards and rooftops.
A gray sky, gusty winds and drizzling rain were reminders that Chantal remained close, but no longer posed a serious threat.
The storm battered shuttered restaurants along the city's deserted coastline shortly after hitting land late Monday night, snapping power lines and hurling tree branches and debris through the air. But state officials said no one was injured.
Chantal emerged Thursday as a fast-moving storm that drenched small Caribbean islands and resulted in two deaths in Trinidad.
Officials along a 200-mile coastline stretching from the popular resort city of Cancun southward to Belize City, Belize, put their populations on alert as Chantal's winds strengthened to near-hurricane speed.
But by yesterday, Chantal almost came to a stop, creeping forward at 6 mph, its winds reduced to 40 mph.
Tropical storms become depressions when their winds slow to 39 mph or less, and are classified as hurricanes when they reach at least 74 mph.
However, forecasters predicted that Chantal would strengthen into a hurricane when it hits the warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico, probably today.
"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.
If the storm stays on its current north-northwest track, it will be over water for a longer time, making a hurricane likely, Mr. Blake said. If it were to shift course to a more westerly direction, it would spend very little time over water, reducing the chances that it would restrengthen a great deal.
Yesterday afternoon, Chantal was about 70 miles west of Chetumal.
Civil protection agencies said yesterday they were putting contingency plans in place in the Gulf Coast states of Veracruz and Tamaulipas.
The storm touched land in Mexico on the Xcalak peninsula just east of Chetumal after 9 p.m. local time Monday, churning up 13-foot waves.
Police and troops evacuated hundreds of people from the peninsula and the Banco Chinchorro, a group of coral reefs east of the peninsula. More than 850 people evacuated their homes in Chetumal, the Mexican government news agency Notimex reported.
Offshore activities were restricted in Cancun, but the brunt of the storm passed south, producing gray skies, some rain and wind, but little danger for thousands of tourists.


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