- Associated Press - Thursday, September 16, 2010

VERACRUZ, Mexico (AP) — Karl reached hurricane force in the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday after dumping heavy rain on the Yucatan Peninsula. It was expected to strengthen more before hitting Mexico’s coast near a port and an oil hub late during the night or early Friday.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said there was a possibility that Karl could become a major hurricane with winds of 110 mph or higher before making landfall.

The Mexican government issued a hurricane warning for a 150-mile stretch of coast in Veracruz state. On its predicted path, Karl could make landfall near the coastal city of Tuxpan and the oil hub of Poza Rica.

Authorities in Veracruz — whose southern half has been battered by severe flooding over the past few weeks — prepared for a hit on its northern coast, getting ready sleeping mats, bottled water and other supplies for anyone needing to take refuge in shelters.

Workers in the port city of Veracruz cut dangerous tree limbs and inspected billboards to make sure they would not become flying debris if the hurricane hit.

By early Thursday, Karl was about 310 miles east of Tuxpan, with winds of 75 mph. It was moving westward rapidly at about 12 mph.

In the Atlantic, Hurricane Igor spun into a Category 4 storm that could generate dangerous rip currents along the U.S. East Coast over the weekend and bring large swells to the Bahamas and Virgin Islands before that. Category 2 Hurricane Julia — was not a threat to land.

Karl could cause storm surges of 6 to 9 feet and “large and destructive waves,” as well as dump up to 15 inches of rain in some areas of Veracruz state, the Hurricane Center said in a statement.

Poza Rica, while slightly inland, houses important pipelines and natural gas- and oil-processing plants operated by the state-owned oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos. Pemex said it had no immediate plans to halt production at the plants because of the storm.

Tuxpan is an old port city of about 135,000 people located on a river near the coast in northern Veracruz.

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 are thinking of returning to their homes.

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.

Violeta Pineda, who has operated thatched-roof bungalows known as the Hotel Kabah Na for 13 years, said waves were rolling about 25 yards onto the beach and eating away at a stretch of road that runs along the coast.

Electricity went out briefly around Majahual. But the town took an almost direct hit from Category 5 Hurricane Dean in 2007 — the third-most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever to hit land — and “this is nothing in comparison,” Ms. Pineda said.

Karl’s center passed close to Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo state. The city had minor flooding and the storm knocked down tree limbs and some electricity line, cutting power to some areas, said Damaris Victoriano Rascon, an employee of the city civil defense office. She said there were no reports of injuries.

Farther to the east in the Atlantic, Hurricane Julia briefly intensified into a powerful Category 4 storm Wednesday before weakening to a Category 2 storm early Thursday with maximum sustained winds near 100 mph. Hurricane Igor’s top winds reached 140 mph on a track that could take it over Bermuda by Monday.

Associated Press Writer Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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