By Tamara Corro
TECOLUTLA, Mexico (Reuters) -Hurricane Grace rapidly intensified into a major hurricane on Friday night as it barreled towards Mexico's Gulf coast, threatening to lash the oil-producing state of Veracruz and central Mexico with strong winds and heavy rains.
By Friday night, Grace was blowing maximum sustained winds of 120 miles per hour (195 km per hour), with higher gusts, making it "a category 3 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale," the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/text/refresh/MIATCPAT2+shtml/210258.shtml.
Grace was about 105 miles (165 kilometers) north of Veracruz, moving west at 10 mph (17 kph), the Miami-based NHC said. It is forecast to reach land later on Friday or in the early hours of Saturday.
Veracruz and its waters are home to several oil installations, including Petroleos Mexicanos' Lazaro Cardenas refinery in Minatitlan in the south of the state. Latest forecasts showed Grace expected to hit Veracruz well to the north of Minatitlan.
Through Sunday, the NHC said Grace would dump 6 to 12 inches (15-30 cm) of rain over large swaths of eastern and central Mexico, and up to 18 inches in some areas. The heavy rainfall would likely cause areas of flash and urban flooding, it added.
"We ask the population to be very alert," Laura Velazquez, head of Mexico's civil protection authority, told a regular news conference with President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Grace pounded Mexico's Caribbean coast on Thursday, downing trees and causing power outages for nearly 700,000 people, but without causing loss of life, authorities said. Earlier in the week, it doused Jamaica and Haiti with torrential rain.
In Tecolutla, a resort on the Gulf of Mexico, some tourists from Mexico City had still been enjoying the calm before the storm in the afternoon, even as light rain started to fall.
"We had to come, even if we get a bit wet," said Guillermina Morales, who was on a trip planned over four months ago.
(Reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City and Tamara Corro in Tecolutla; Additional reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher; Editing by Frances Kerry, Aurora Ellis and William Mallard)