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BELIZE CITY, Belize (AP) _ Thousands of residents and tourists fled low-lying coastal regions of Belize on Monday as Hurricane Iris, the year's most powerful Atlantic storm, drove toward the coast with 145 mph winds.

``We are expecting it to hit very hard,'' said Arreini Palacio, a government spokeswoman. ``We are in a state of emergency.''

Iris was about 75 miles east-southeast of Belize City Monday afternoon and was moving westward at about 22 mph, putting it on course to blast into southern Belize Monday night.

Palacio said soldiers were going door to door to evacuate people in this low-lying, seaside city of 65,000 people. The nation's capital was moved inland to Belmopan after Hurricane Hattie destroyed much of Belize City in 1961.

While the evacuation was optional in Belize City, officials said it was mandatory for some coastal towns farther south and for offshore cayes popular with tourists.

``This is an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane,'' said Richard Knabb, a meteorologist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. ``This is going to cause extensive damage wherever it makes landfall.''

Many along the Belize coast were starting to take notice.

George Bevier, co-owner of the beachfront Rum Point Inn, near Placencia, 70 miles south of Belize City, said he, eight guests and four employees had planned to wait out the hurricane but decided to leave Monday afternoon as Iris changed course and appeared headed straight for Placencia.

``We've been down here 30 years and we've experienced some serious hurricanes,'' Bevier said. ``But this is a category 4 and that could be big trouble. Even 10-foot waves could wipe out this whole peninsula.''

Bevier said the group may have waited too long to seek safety.

``We could head into the mountains to a resort just north of here, but we don't know if they're open at this point,'' he said. ``The other option is just to drive into the Mayan mountains behind us. There are some roads ... that we hope will be safe. They will be safer than staying here.''

Nearly every window in town was boarded up and the only road out was clogged with traffic.

In Punta Gorda, 40 miles south of Placencia, William Schmidt, 55, owner of the Nature's Way Guest House, said people were doing what they could to prepare for the storm.

``The stores are jammed. People are stocking up and preparing, but if this comes too fast they will have to stay where they are.''

``We'd like to evacuate but we don't know where to go,'' said Schmidt, who had been moved out in 1999 for Hurricane Mitch. ``The school where we went in Mitch shakes with a big clap of thunder and is not very safe.''

Juan Bendeck, Honduras' emergency commissioner, said his country was on a state of alert. Schools had been closed in the Bay Islands offshore and flights there were canceled and fishermen on the coast sought safe haven.

Local officials said thousands of people had left low-lying areas for higher ground.

Civil defense authorities ordered emergency workers to be on alert in Guatemala, where Iris was expected to dump heavy rains over the northern part of the country. A slight southward twitch in the storm's path could bring it to shore near Guatemala's Puerto Barrios.

Iris gained force after brushing past Jamaica on Sunday with 85 mph winds that toppled some trees, tore off roofs and injured at least one person.

Iris killed a mother and her two young daughters in the Dominican Republic on Saturday when a retaining wall collapsed onto their house.

Farther east in the Caribbean, Tropical Storm Jerry faded into a disorganized tropical depression midway between Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

It had been following in Iris' path with winds of about 50 mph.