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Massive hurricane nears Mexico

Tens of thousands on the Yucatan coast flee to shelters as Dean strengthens to a Category 5 behemoth.

August 21, 2007|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

tulum, mexico -- Hurricane Dean became an extremely powerful Category 5 storm as it bore down Monday on the Yucatan peninsula, forcing tens of thousands of residents and tourists to seek shelter along hundreds of miles of coastline.

The outer bands of the storm, packing 160-mph winds near its eye, began lashing the coasts of Yucatan and Belize early today. It was forecast to make landfall about 1:30 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time on a sparsely populated stretch of the Yucatan about 70 miles south of the town of Tulum, according to Mexican officials and the U.S. National Hurricane Center. Cancun, about 80 miles north of Tulum, was expected to escape the brunt of the storm.

The largest city threatened was Chetumal, home to 137,000 people about 50 miles southwest of the eye's path. It is the capital of Quintana Roo state, which includes Cancun, Cozumel and other resorts.

"We are begging people to leave their homes and go to one of our shelters," Cora Amalia Castilla, the mayor of Chetumal, said in a telephone interview. "All we are asking is that this hurricane take pity on us."

Five is the highest level on the Saffir-Simpson scale used to measure hurricanes, an intensity not seen in the Atlantic since 2005, the year Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Officials at the southern tip of Texas urged people to leave Monday, though Dean was supposed to pass far to the south.

On the beaches east of Tulum, hundreds of tourists fled bungalows facing white sands, a turquoise sea and winds that grew more powerful with each passing hour.

Many headed inland for the relative safety of this town, where 3,000 residents and tourists were expected to seek shelter at emergency centers set up at schools, hotels and other buildings.

Chris Davis, 32, of Toronto spent the final afternoon before the hurricane's arrival taking advantage of the strong winds, parasurfing on a stretch of beach where dozens of cabanas were boarded up and empty.

"I'm not going to be doing this much longer," said Davis, who planned to stay with friends in Tulum. "We've got three days of food and water to last us."

Bernardo Cruz, a lobster fisherman, was one of 600 people to evacuate the town of Punta Allen, a fishing hamlet where only a small contingent of Mexican sailors remained to guard facilities. They were part of a force of 4,000 troops dispatched to the region.

"No one is left there," Cruz said as he drove to Tulum on Monday afternoon. "Just the sailors, who are going to leave at the very last moment."

Quintana Roo state officials said 60,000 tourists had been evacuated or left the region during what is traditionally one of the busiest weeks of the tourist season.

Hurricane Dean, born a week ago east of the Antilles, killed at least 12 people as it passed through the Caribbean.

The Cayman Islands were brushed by the hurricane late Sunday after it downed trees, flooded roads and collapsed some buildings in Jamaica. But neither took a direct hit.

Officials issued hurricane warnings Monday night for the entire coast of Belize and the Yucatan peninsula south of Cancun.

The storm was predicted to cross the peninsula into the Bay of Campeche, where hundreds of offshore oil wells were shutting down ahead of the storm.

On the eastern coast of the Yucatan peninsula, officials began evacuating hotels on low- lying islands such as Cozumel over the weekend. The last ferry left Cozumel for the mainland Sunday afternoon, officials said.

On Monday afternoon, with winds still light and skies clear, most tourists took the inconvenience in stride.

"Everybody is really helpful and really calm," said Rita Pelican, a 38-year-old from Switzerland who was leaving a hotel in Playa del Carmen for shelter at a Cancun hotel. "They're trying to take care of us, to tell us what to do."

Government officials said they were most worried about the thousands of residents of low-lying neighborhoods and the precarious wooden structures known as palapas.

In the city of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, 80 miles north of Chetumal and Mexico's border with Belize, several residents of such neighborhoods were refusing to evacuate, Quintana Roo Gov. Felix González Canto said in a radio interview.

"We are talking to the leaders of these communities in an effort to convince them of the gravity of the situation," he said.

Mayor Castilla of Chetumal said there were 4,000 such precarious homes in her city.

In the town of Francisco Carrillo Puerto, north of Chetumal, Mayor Wilbert Eliseo Bahena said he feared the region's agriculture would be hit hard.

"We're not an area that has a lot of tourists," Bahena said. The inland region, square in the storm's path, produces sugar cane, chili peppers and honey. "The people are worried about their crops. It's the most important business here."

Mexican President Felipe Calderon, in Ottawa for a summit with President Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said he would cut short his visit to return to Mexico today and travel to the peninsula.

In Cancun, armored vehicles patrolled the hotel district, where tourists snapped pictures as waves from the distant hurricane pounded the sea wall.Electricity remained on and the atmosphere in the city's largest hotels, filled with evacuees from outlying resorts, was festive.

Tony Chlosta, 25, from Glasgow, Scotland, was among the crowds taking in the spectacle of a churning, darkening sea from the patio of the Gran Caribe Real Hotel -- until the waves began to reach up over the wall.

"It was getting a bit scary, and we didn't feel comfortable," he said. "So we went up to watch from the fourth floor."

hector.tobar@latimes.com

Cecilia Sánchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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