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Baja Braces for Arrival of Hurricane

Resort towns prepare to evacuate thousands as John is expected to make landfall. The storm has weakened, but officials are taking no chances.

September 01, 2006|Carlos Martinez and Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writers

MANZANILLO, Mexico — Hurricane John spared Mexico's Pacific Coast tourism belt, but moved north Thursday toward the Baja California peninsula, where authorities prepared to evacuate thousands of residents.

John, which was downgraded Thursday to a Category 2 storm, was expected to make landfall today on the peninsula before veering northwest into the Pacific.

Officials at the National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm was expected to weaken as it passed over cooler water and would pose no threat to the California coast.

In the Baja resort town of Cabo San Lucas, officials were preparing shelter space for as many as 10,000 people who live in neighborhoods in danger of flooding or wind damage.

"We've already warned the people and they are ready" to evacuate if necessary, Victor Manuel Guluarte Castro, interior minister for the state of Baja California, said in a telephone interview.

Flights from the resort to the United States were packed with tourists ending their vacations early, and there were long lines at the airport. Local hotels were taking no new reservations.

Generators were available to provide electricity if power lines are downed, and 97 shelters were being prepared to receive evacuees.

"We're asking people to listen to us and above all not to worry about their property," Guluarte said. "They should worry about protecting their lives first. That's the most important thing."

In Manzanillo, where a hurricane watch was in effect Wednesday night and Thursday morning, only a small number of people sought refuge in government shelters.

"I came because my house is made out of asbestos sheets," said Pedro Perez Gallegos, 74. "And since they said this [storm] is going to be a bad one, I decided not to risk it."

Resort cities along a 400-mile stretch of coastline from Acapulco to Puerto Vallarta were placed under a hurricane watch, as John briefly increased to Category 4 strength just off the coast. But the hurricane weakened and never made landfall, and no serious injuries were reported.

Heavy rains from the hurricane's outer belts caused flooding in Acapulco, south of Manzanillo, and made roads impassable to towns in the mountainous interior.

In Manzanillo, officials called off mandatory evacuations Wednesday night, after learning that John would only graze the coast.

"We were worried about our rivers flooding," Mayor Alicia Mandujano Cantera said, adding that she was relieved that the city had been spared the worst of the storm. "In cases like this, you can't go too far in your precautions."

Farther out in the Pacific, Hurricane Kristy formed with minimum sustained winds of about 75 mph. It was forecast to move slowly westward.

On the Baja peninsula, many people were expecting a direct hit from John.

The last big hurricane to sweep across the area was Marty in September 2003. It caused at least three deaths in Cabo San Lucas before advancing north along the east coast of the peninsula toward La Paz, where it left seven people dead.

Two years before, Hurricane Juliette damaged or destroyed 1,800 homes and displaced 4,000 residents in Cabo San Lucas.

North of Cabo San Lucas, in the East Cape region on the Gulf of California, an area popular with American anglers and other tourists, many businesses were beginning to shut down Thursday morning.

"Our boats are out of the water, the guests are gone -- everything," said John Ireland, owner of Rancho Leonero Resort, a remote thatch-roofed hotel on a bluff next to an arroyo.

Precaution -- and lots of sand bags -- seemed to be the watchword from Cabo San Lucas to La Paz.

"I guess everybody is gun shy from [Hurricane] Katrina," said Mark Rayor, owner of the East Cape dive company Vista Sea Sport. "Everybody pulled their boats, and we're ahead of the normal panic at the last minute."

But not quite everybody.

"We have two guys from England that booked 10 days," Tracy Ehrenberg, owner of Pisces Sportfishing and Cabo Yacht Charters, said via e-mail Thursday morning. "They are fishing today [Thursday] and plan to fish after the storm too ... definitely optimists."

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carlos.martinez@latimes.com

pete.thomas@latimes.com

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Martinez reported from Manzanillo and Thomas from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Hector Tobar and Cecilia Sanchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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