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A sigh of relief over Dean

The hurricane weakens to a tropical depression over Mexico, soaking villages but doing little serious damage. Yucatan farmers fared worse.

August 23, 2007|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Hurricane Dean moved onto Mexico's east coast Wednesday after flattening homes and crops on the Yucatan Peninsula. But the storm appeared to have spared lives as well as the country's signature beach resorts and key oil installations.

The threat of serious flooding and mudslides remained as the former Category 5 hurricane diminished to a tropical depression, dropping heavy rain on villages along the mountains of the eastern Sierra Madre.

An estimated 20,000 people along the coast were evacuated before the storm hit, and authorities have reported no deaths or serious injuries from Hurricane Dean. A man reportedly was electrocuted Wednesday by a power line while trying to secure his roof in advance of the storm.

The storm "continues moving west, and overnight it will reach the city of Queretaro and the central part of country, but it will be much weaker," said Martin Reyes of Mexico's National Weather Service.

As a precaution, government officials closed public schools in the states of Hidalgo, Puebla and Queretaro.

Authorities had prepared for the worst, evacuating thousands of tourists from Caribbean beaches and sending troops, medical personnel and even portable ATMs after Dean killed 20 people farther east and then headed toward Cancun and other resorts along Mexico's so-called Riviera Maya.

Two years ago, Hurricane Wilma smacked Cancun, stranding thousands of tourists, killing seven people and causing more than $2 billion in damage, mostly to the high-rise hotels built along miles of sugar-sand beach.

Dean landed early Tuesday about 150 miles south of Cancun, at Felipe Carrillo Puerto, where farmers, fishermen and villagers bore the brunt of the storm's force. The state capital of Quintana Roo, Chetumal, had widespread flooding and hundreds of fallen trees. State officials said 15,000 families were left homeless.

Heavy rain and winds reaching 165 mph wrecked an estimated 60,000 acres of crops -- mostly corn, but also papaya, watermelon and citrus, state officials said.

Many farmers will lose most of their income for the year, said Jorge Flores, an agronomist with the Central University of the Yucatan Peninsula.

"The state or federal government needs to create an emergency fund for farmers who lost this year's crop and get them help to start next year's," he said.

After battering the Yucatan Peninsula on Tuesday, the hurricane weakened as it moved west over land toward the oil-rich southern Gulf of Mexico. Mexican officials had evacuated oil rigs, halting production in a region that normally yields 2.6 million barrels of oil a day and 2.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

By the time it reached oil platforms in the Gulf, Dean had diminished to a Category 1 hurricane from a rare Category 5.

Officials of Pemex, Mexico's national oil company, said Wednesday that they hoped to resume operations by Friday in the southern Gulf, which provides 80% of Mexico's oil, the nation's leading source of revenue. Mexico is the third-largest U.S. oil supplier behind Canada and Saudi Arabia.

Dean regained some strength over the warm Gulf waters and packed 100-mph winds at mid-morning Wednesday when it made landfall on the east coast at Tecolutla, a tourist and fishing village between Tampico and the port city of Veracruz.

But as the hurricane moved inland and weakened, authorities, including President Felipe Calderon, expressed relief that the damage was not worse.

"Given the fury this hurricane presented, we've come out OK, and we've come out OK because we were prepared," Calderon said Wednesday after a tour of damaged regions. "Now, the challenge is to return to the regions hit by the hurricane to help the families that lost their homes."


Cecilia Sánchez and Maria Antonieta Uribe of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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