Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hurricane Rick weakens in Pacific, still dangerous

MIAMI — Forecasters say Hurricane Rick has weakened in the eastern North Pacific but is still a dangerous storm and could veer into resorts at the tip of the Baja California Peninsula by midweek.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, Fla., says as of Sunday night, winds were down to 145 mph (230 kph). It makes it a Category 4 storm. The peak winds as a Category 5 were 180 mph (285 kph).

Forecasters say a hurricane watch may be required for parts of southern Baja California on Monday.

The eye was centered about 410 miles (660 kilometers) south of Cabo San Lucas as of 11 p.m. EDT Sunday.

More weakening is expected over the next couple of days.

Large swells will cause potentially dangerous surf along the southern Baja California coast and west-central coast of Mexico.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Hurricane Rick, the strongest eastern North Pacific storm in more than a decade, weakened slightly over open seas Sunday as forecasters said it could veer into resorts at the tip of the Baja California Peninsula by midweek.

The track of the Category 5 hurricane threatened to disrupt a major sport fishing tournament scheduled to start Wednesday in Los Cabos, where hundreds of fishermen — mainly Americans — were gathering.

The hurricane's winds were still a howling 160 mph (260 kph) Sunday, down slightly from a peak of 180 mph (285 kph), according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.

It was projected to move over cooler waters and weaken to between 109 and 86 mph (175 to 138 kph) before hitting land, but "Rick is expected to remain a dangerous hurricane for the next couple of days," the center said.

The eye was centered about 450 miles (725 kilometers) south of Cabo San Lucas as of 5 p.m. EDT Sunday (2100 GMT).

Los Cabos's civil defense director, Francisco Cota, said authorities were already weighing plans to open storm shelters and start police patrols urging residents of low-lying neighborhoods to evacuate. "We foresee opening a lot of shelters," Cota said, while noting the weather at the resort was still warm and mostly sunny Sunday.

The first inhabited land in Rick's path is Socorro Island, about 300 miles (500 kilometers) southwest of Cabo San Lucas, where about 103 personnel from the Mexican Navy and other government agencies are based.

The mainland base that commands the detachment said Navy personnel on the island reported some wind and rain and lowered communications antennas to prevent them from being blown away when the hurricane passes near the island Monday. Isla Socorro is a nature reserve that hosts the Navy detachment as well as scuba-diving expeditions.

Rick was moving toward the northwest at about 14 mph (22 kph) and was expected to begin turning toward the northwest over the coming 48 hours before curving toward the northeast, the center said.

It's still far from clear where the storm will hit land, but the early forecast path would take it almost directly into Cabo San Lucas, where as many as 800 sports fishermen were expected to take part in the Bisbee's Los Cabos tournament, with about 130 boats scheduled to set off into the Pacific on Wednesday — the day Rick is projected to hit.

Teams from Russia and Japan had already shown up, and tournament organizer Clicerio Mercado said the three-day event would not be postponed, though fishing in the first two days might be canceled because of Rick, possibly leaving it as a one-day event Friday.

"In past years, we have had to cancel the first day of fishing two or three times," Mercado said. "But postponing it (the entire tournament) isn't a possibility."

Mercado said that in the past, "very big" 700 to 800 pound fish had been caught in the wake of storms because the churned-up waters draw in hungry fish.

Forecasters said Rick could carry enough force to continue past the peninsula and slam into Mexico's mainland as a hurricane somewhere near the resort city of Mazatlan on Thursday.

Rick was the second-strongest hurricane in the eastern North Pacific since 1966, when experts began keeping reliable records, Hurricane Center meteorologist Hugh Cobb said.

The strongest was Hurricane Linda, which generated maximum winds of 185 mph (296 kph) in September 1997.

"Rick is probably going to go into the record books as one of the most rapidly intensifying hurricanes," Cobb said.

The storm was generating some waves up to 50 feet (15 meters) near its core, Cobb said, adding there were ship reports of 16-foot (5-meter) seas elsewhere off the Mexican coast. Rick was expected to send large sea swells against the coast.

The Hurricane Center also reported Sunday that a tropical depression has formed far south of the Hawaiian Islands and is expected to strengthen over the next two days.

The depression's center was about 905 miles (1,450 kilometers) southeast of Honolulu. It was moving toward the northwest at about 15 mph (24 kph). Winds were about 30 mph (48 kph) with higher gusts.

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