Tropical Storm Alma Lashes Central America

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MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) -- Tropical Storm Alma lashed the coast of Central America with heavy rains and high winds on Thursday after becoming the first such storm of the eastern Pacific season.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm was expected to strengthen to a hurricane before hitting Nicaragua near the city of Leon later Thursday.

As of early afternoon, Alma was packing maximum sustained winds near 65 mph (100 kph) and was located about 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Managua. The storm was moving north at 7 mph (11 kph.)

Authorities issued hurricane warnings for coastal Nicaragua and Honduras.

The fast-growing storm took forecasters and many in Central America by surprise. Residents scrambled to prepare for the storm before it hit.

The Nicaraguan government began mobilizing some 1,200 emergency officials, and authorities were evacuating people from flood-prone areas. Heavy rains and flooding knocked out power to some sections of the country.

People crowded Managua supermarkets to buy food, water, candles and batteries, and schools canceled classes and were on standby to become temporary shelters.

Many flights were also grounded, and at least one small plane carrying five people had to make an emergency landing in the Caribbean coastal city of Bluefields because of bad weather conditions.

The storm wrapped the Costa Rican capital of San Jose in a dense fog, slowing traffic to a crawl and forcing the cancellation of a soccer final. Along the coast, some 200 families had been evacuated to more than 160 storm shelters set up after Alma dumped rain over the country for 24 hours. Landslides blocked a few highways.

El Salvador was still dry, but fishermen were pulling their boats from the water in anticipation of the storm.

The hurricane center predicted Alma would plow through the southern border region of El Salvador and Honduras early Friday.

Forecasters warn it could dump as much as 20 inches (50 centimeters) of rain in places.

The eastern Pacific hurricane season began May 15.