July 17, 2005

Powerful hurricane Emily tears toward Mexico

By Anahi Rama

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexico was braced for one of its
worst storms in years as violent Hurricane Emily howled toward
popular Caribbean resorts around Cancun on Sunday, packing
winds of up to 155 mph (250 kph).

The second major hurricane of the season, arriving just
days after Hurricane Dennis ripped through Cuba and Florida,
Emily was due to pass over the tiny Cayman Islands early Sunday
and smash into Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula during the evening.

As it tore westward through the Caribbean, forecasters said
Emily was on the verge of blowing into a rare and deadly
Category 5 hurricane on the five-step scale of intensity, a
level of storm capable of destroying buildings.

With local authorities on standby to evacuate the entire
Yucatan coast if necessary, some 40,000 tourists were due to
leave the area early on Sunday, many taking the last flights
out of Cancun as airlines began packing up.

Some 30,000 tourists fled the day before, out of a total of
130,000 holidaymakers initially in the state of Quintana Roo.

Cancun was in turmoil on Saturday night as thousands of
tourists evacuated from the resort islands of Isla Mujeres and
Cozumel, or brought in from flimsy cabana resorts further down
the coast, fought over rooms in sturdy hotels.

"I'm not happy about this situation," complained American
pilot Roland Perr as he was turned away by the third Cancun
hotel in a row, after being brought to shore from the
backpacker paradise of Isla Mujeres earlier in the day.

He planned to head south to Central America with his wife
first thing on Sunday to finish their vacation.

Tourists unable to leave the area were told to relocate on
Sunday to 25 Cancun hotels inland from the coast and earmarked
as being the most likely to withstand hurricane-force winds.

Local business owners were wincing at the thought of the
damage Emily could do to a local economy that is one of the
richest in Mexico thanks to a year-round influx of tourists.

Emily skirted past Jamaica some 100 miles off the south
coast but the torrential rains and howling winds trailing it
were easily enough to trigger flooding and mudslides.


Cancun was still only feeling a light breeze as the city
went to bed on Saturday night. Some locals had no idea a
hurricane was approaching until reporters told them.

But coastal fishing communities were evacuated early on
Saturday and almost all the tourists on Isla Mujeres and the
upscale scuba-diving island of Cozumel were brought inland.

As local radio broadcast the hurricane warning, shops and
bars boarded up windows, thousands of troops were on standby
for rescue drills, and schools and sports centers were
converted into emergency shelters with space for tens of
thousands of people.

Local people piled into supermarkets to stock up on canned
food and water and health authorities stockpiled medicine to
treat possible infections caused by flooding. Motorists lined
up for fuel, fearing a disruption to supplies.

Long-term residents feared a repeat of Hurricane Gilberto,
which tore up Cancun in 1988, razing homes and scarring
beaches. The worst hurricane since then was Isidore, which
washed away beach huts, cut off power and destroyed swathes of
jungle and mangroves in the Yucatan in 2002.

Cancun's concrete hotels are mostly able to resist high
winds, but thousands of Mexicans in the area live in ramshackle
homes and the flat terrain offers little resistance to storms.

With the sea set to be badly whipped up, state oil monopoly
Pemex, a major supplier to the United States, shut 63 oil wells
in the southern Gulf of Mexico, west of Yucatan, and evacuated
some 15,000 nonessential workers from offshore oil rigs.

The closures will hold back a quarter of daily output,
although no shipments have been canceled, Pemex said.

Tiny Belize, which borders the Yucatan Peninsula to the
south and is known for its laid-back island resorts, upgraded
its alert late on Saturday to a tropical storm warning.