July 16, 2005

Tourists flee Mexico’s Cancun as Emily roars closer

By Anahi Rama

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - Hundreds of glum-faced
sun-seekers abandoned the palm-fringed Caribbean beaches around
Cancun, Mexico, on Saturday, and local fishermen fled for cover
as powerful Hurricane Emily headed toward the coast.

A violent Category 4 hurricane packing winds of 155 mph
(250 kph), Emily was expected to hit Mexico's Yucatan peninsula
-- one of the world's most popular vacation spots -- late on
Sunday after tearing past southern Jamaica on Saturday.

Emily's power put it on the verge of blowing into a rare
Category 5 storm on the five-step scale of hurricane intensity,
one capable of destroying buildings in the hours ahead.

As the government issued a hurricane warning all down the
Yucatan coast, tourists were brought in from holiday islands,
shops and bars boarded up their windows and many foreigners cut
short their holidays and flew home.

"We had planned to leave Cancun on Tuesday or Wednesday but
we're leaving right now," said American accountant Ben Morras,
32, heading back to Seattle with his girlfriend.

"We didn't know there was a hurricane coming when we
arrived and we're a little scared," he said.

Officials said emergency services and thousands of troops
were on standby for evacuation or rescue drills and all down
the coast schools and sports centers were being converted into
emergency shelters with space for tens of thousands of people.

Anxious locals piled into supermarkets after local radio
advised stocking up on canned food and water. Motorists lined
up for extra fuel, fearing a disruption to supplies.

With forecasters warning Emily could blow into a terrifying
Category 5 hurricane as it roared toward Mexico, locals feared
a repeat of Hurricane Gilberto, which tore up Cancun and Isla
Mujeres in 1988, razing homes and leaving beaches scarred.

The worst hurricane to hit Mexico since then was Isidore,
which washed away beach huts, cut off power and destroyed
swathes of jungle and mangroves in the Yucatan in 2002.


As Emily howled past Jamaica, hammering the island with
torrential rains and pounding surf, Cancun was still calm, with
sunshine, a few clouds and a light breeze. Some locals had no
idea a hurricane was approaching until reporters told them.

But fishing communities along the coast were already
evacuated, and hundreds of tourists had been boated to the
mainland from the tiny island of Isla Mujeres, a backpacker
favorite, and the upmarket scuba-diving island of Cozumel.

Health authorities said they had prepared supplies of
medicines to treat possible infections caused by flooding, as
locals prepared to sit out the storm in shelters.

While the concrete hotels of Cancun and Playa del Carmen
are sturdy enough to stand up to hurricane-force winds, many
local resorts consist of flimsy cabanas, and thousands of
Mexicans in the area live in ramshackle homes.

State oil monopoly Pemex, which has operations along the
southern rim of the Gulf of Mexico, west of Yucatan, also was
on the alert, with boats and helicopters ready to evacuate
personnel if needed.

Pemex is the world's No. 9 exporter of crude oil with most
of its exports going north to the United States. No shipments
had been canceled as of Saturday, a spokeswoman said.

In tiny Belize, which borders the Yucatan peninsula to the
south and is best known for its laid-back island holiday spots,
the government issued a tropical storm watch.