July 17, 2005

Dangerous Hurricane Emily roars toward Mexico

By Tim Gaynor and Anahi Rama

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - Hurricane Emily howled toward
Mexico's Caribbean coast on Sunday bearing 145 mph (235 kph)
winds, pounding waves and torrential rain, and causing chaos in
Cancun as tourists fled resorts in its path.

As the breeze picked up and waves grew larger, business
owners winced at the thought of what the storm could do to an
economy that is one of Mexico's richest thanks to a year-round
tourist influx.

Locals, many of whom live in ramshackle houses much less
able to withstand storm winds than Cancun's luxury hotels,
worried aloud about their homes as they headed for shelter.

Some feared a repeat of Hurricane Gilbert, which tore up
Cancun in 1988, killing hundreds.

"We're pretty terrified. I lived through Gilbert," said
Exequiel Martinez, 53, who lives with his family in a shack
with a palm-frond roof near the resort town of Playa del
Carmen, an hour's drive south of Cancun.

"We've covered everything with canvas but I don't know if
it will hold out. It could be we'll find nothing left."

The storm killed four people in Jamaica. In Mexico two
helicopter pilots were killed in a crash during oil rig
evacuations in the southern Gulf of Mexico.

Emily was measured at Category 4 on the five-step scale of
hurricane intensity. Maximum gusts weakened as the storm neared
Mexico, lowering the risk of it blowing into a potentially
catastrophic Category 5 hurricane.

At 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT), Emily was at latitude 19.0 north
and longitude 84.4 west, or 195 miles east-southeast of
Cozumel, and moving west-northwest near 20 mph (32 kph).

The second major hurricane of the season, arriving days
after Hurricane Dennis ripped through Cuba and Florida, Emily
was set to smash into Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula late Sunday.

With authorities on standby to evacuate the entire Yucatan
coast if necessary, some 40,000 tourists were pouring out of
the area. Some 30,000 left on Saturday, out of 130,000
vacationing in the state of Quintana Roo on the peninsula.


As the storm approached, thousands of tourists crushed into
Cancun airport, many panicking as they were told flights were
full and they should seek emergency shelter. Most hotels were

With the airport due to close in the next few hours,
officials distributed a list of hurricane shelters.

In the scrum inside the airport, frantic visitors crammed
around information booths and public telephones.

"It's my birthday today and I don't know if I'm going to be
at home tonight or in a hurricane shelter," said Canadian
Maureen Calkinn, turning 57 of Victoria, Canada as she awaited
news of her flight.

Thousands had been evacuated from the islands of Isla
Mujeres and Cozumel or flimsy cabana resorts along the coast.

The mood grew bleaker after local government suspended the
sale of alcohol.

"We saw them stacking up sandbags at our hotel and putting
tape on the glass and then they cut off the alcohol," said
Andrew Lechance, 41, from Boston. "The party's off in Cancun."


Emily passed 100 miles to the south of Jamaica but still
triggered flooding and mudslides there. Two children and two
adults died when their car was swept away.

The storm barely grazed the Cayman Islands, a relief to
residents of the British colony hit by Ivan in 2004.

As Mexican radio repeated hurricane warnings, shops and
bars were boarded up, thousands of troops were on standby, and
schools, churches and sports centers prepared to offer shelter
to tens of thousands of people.

Residents stocked up on canned food and bottled water.
Health authorities stockpiled medicine to treat possible
infections. Motorists lined up for fuel.

State oil monopoly Pemex, a major supplier to the United
States, shut 63 oil wells in the southern Gulf of Mexico and
evacuated some 15,000 workers from offshore rigs and said it
was considering removing the remaining 942.

The well closures will shut off a quarter of daily output.

Tiny Belize, which borders the Yucatan to the south, issued
a tropical storm warning. Western Cuba was also facing storms.