LA CEIBA, Honduras (AP) _ People fled their coastal homes and the Honduran government sent air force planes to pluck residents off remote Caribbean islands Monday in the face of the most powerful hurricane in a decade to threaten Central America.

Hurricane Mitch became a Category 5 hurricane _ the strongest category there is _ with winds of 180 mph Monday. By 1 a.m. EST Tuesday, Mitch's center was just west of Honduras' Swan Island and was moving northwest at 8 mph.

``Mitch is expected to remain a very dangerous hurricane capable of causing catastrophic damage,'' the U.S. National Weather Service said from its National Hurricane Center in Miami.

The hurricane posed no immediate threat to the United States, and was expected to remain in the northwest Caribbean for the next five days, the center said.

Jerry Jarrell, the center's director, said Mitch was the strongest hurricane to strike the Caribbean since Gilbert in 1988, which killed more than 300 people.

The government of Belize closed schools Monday and sent its employees who work along the coast home early to prepare for the storm. Mexico mobilized troops and emergency workers on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan peninsula.

Honduran President Carlos Flores Facusse declared a state of alert and told coastal residents to leave their homes for safer ground farther inland.

``Where can I go if I leave my house? The government hasn't opened a single shelter,'' asked Pedro Martinez, an electrician in the city of San Pedro Sula, 100 miles north of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.

Authorities in San Pedro Sula planned to set up shelters in public schools.

In La Ceiba, on Honduras' western coast, people stood in long lines at filling stations to buy gasoline under a steady rain Monday. Maria Gonzalez said she needed the gas to cook with in case her firewood gets wet.

``I have six children, and we live in a riverbed,'' she said. ``If it gets real bad, we'll go to the church and see what the architect of the world has in store for us.''

The president ordered all air force planes and helicopters to evacuate people from the Bay islands, a string of small islands off the central coast.

Swinwick Jackson, a fisherman on one of the islands, had tied up his boats and was planning to take his family to stay with a relative on higher ground. Speaking by telephone from Utila, 20 miles north of La Ceiba, he said most tourists had left the island Sunday but some were stranded, and hotels were moving them to houses in the mountains.

``Mitch is closing in, and God help us in the coming hours,'' said Utila Mayor Monterrey Cardenas.

Police spokesman Ivan Mejia said three rivers _ the Coco, Segovia and Cruta _ all overflowed their banks Monday along the eastern Honduran coast.

In El Progreso, 100 miles north of Tegucigalpa, the army evacuated more than 5,000 people from low-lying banana plantations along the Ulua River, said resident Nolly Soliman.

Before bearing down on Honduras, Mitch swept past Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. Rain squalls flooded streets in the Jamaican capital of Kingston, and government offices and schools closed in the Caymans, a British colony of 28,000 people.

Heavy rains began to fall along the Honduran coast Sunday night.

Flores Facusse, the Honduran president, ordered all public offices and schools on the Caribbean coast to close by noon Monday.

``We're ready for whatever situation occurs,'' said Vice President Billy Handal. ``I ask God to be benevolent with Hondurans.''

The strongest hurricane to hit Honduras in recent memory was Fifi, which ravaged Honduras in 1974 and killed at least 2,000 people.