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By Ivan Castro
MANAGUA (Reuters) - Hurricane Ida weakened to a tropical storm as it churned through eastern Nicaragua on Thursday after cutting power and ripping roofs on little-developed Caribbean islands.
Hundreds of people were evacuated from flimsy homes on the Corn Islands, near the port of Bluefields, as Ida drenched the remote Miskito coast with heavy rain. The U.S. National Hurricane Centre warned of floods and mudslides.
At 7 p.m. EST (0000 GMT) Ida's maximum winds slowed to near 40 mph (65 kph) and the storm is expected to become a tropical depression Thursday night. "Ida is now barely a tropical storm," the Miami-based NHC said, though it warned that heavy rainfall was a major concern.
"These rains could produce life-threatening flash floods and mudslides," the centre said.
The storm was heading north-northwest about 55 miles (85 km) north of the port of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua.
Ida is expected to regain strength after it moves back over the Caribbean sea on Saturday, and could enter the oil and gas-rich Gulf of Mexico next week.
General Mario Perez-Cassar, Nicaragua's civil defence chief, said strong winds ripped roofs and knocked out power in Big Corn Island and Little Corn Island, home to shrimp and lobster fishermen.
"They are without power, all the electric lines are down, there are trees on the roads and no running water," Perez-Cassar told local television.
The NHC said Ida could produce up to 20 inches (51 cm) of rain as it moves over eastern Nicaragua and into Honduras.
Nicaragua and Honduras are important coffee exporters, and harvesting has been under way since October, but farms are mainly in mountainous areas further inland.
Persistent heavy rain could knock ripe cherries off coffee trees if the storm moves inland, however, and mudslides could cut off roads to coffee farms, Luis Osorio, technical director at the national coffee council, said on Wednesday.
Nicaragua is also a key sugar grower, but plantations are nearer the Pacific coast, well away from the storm's path, and growers did not see a serious impact on production.
At worst the harvest, due to start on November 11, could be delayed a few days by rain, said Mario Amador, head of the national sugar producers' association. He added that Nicaragua should have no problem filling its sugar export quotas to Mexico, which faces a shortfall this year.
Nearly 2,000 people in the Corn Islands and Sandy Bay were evacuated to shelters before Ida hit. "We are expecting serious impact on infrastructure," Perez-Cassar said.
(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Washington; writing by Cyntia Barrera; Editing by Paul Simao)