Tropical Storm Richard gained strength Saturday, lashing the Caribbean coast of Honduras with strong winds and heavy rain that threatened potentially deadly flash floods and landslides.
The storm was expected to pass "near or over" Honduras' coast late Saturday and become a hurricane on Sunday, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida. Honduran authorities declared a red, or maximum, alert in four coastal provinces.
Richard is also likely to pass near the Honduran island of Roatan, which is popular with tourists and divers, before making landfall in Belize late Sunday or early Monday.
Hurricane warnings were issued for all of those areas, and storm warnings were also in place for Mexico's southern Caribbean coast.
By Saturday night Richard was just off Honduras' coast, at a point about 150 miles east of the city of La Ceiba, and was moving west at about 7 mph.
Its maximum sustained winds strengthened to 70 mph and were forecast to reach hurricane strength by early Sunday, according to the hurricane center.
Honduran officials said rain was falling on the eastern province of Gracias a Dios, where floods have been severe in the past.
"Richard is traveling slowly parallel to Honduras' Atlantic coast and causing rains since Friday night on the Caribbean seaboard," said Daniel Posas of Honduras' National Meteorological Service.
"Bands from Richard are already provoking strong winds in Gracias a Dios province that will increase over the course of the day."
Lisandro Rosales, head of Honduras' Permanent Emergency Commission, said civil defense offices along the coast were preparing to carry out evacuations if needed.
The hurricane center said Richard could cause "large, destructive waves" and storm surges of 2 to 4 feet above normal tides in Honduras and Belize. The storm could bring 3 to 5 inches of rain to northern Honduras and as much as 7 inches in some spots, which the center said "could produce life-threatening flash floods and mud slides."