July 17, 2005

Lethal Hurricane Emily targets Mexican coast

By Tim Gaynor and Anahi Rama

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - Hurricane Emily howled toward
Mexico's Caribbean coast on Sunday packing 135 mph (215 kph)
winds and torrential rain and causing panic in Cancun, where
screaming tourists squeezed into musty shelters.

Mexico shut down the majority of offshore wells in its most
productive oil fields, and two ports that export crude were
closed due to churning seas.

Wind and rain pummeled palm trees and waves crashed on to
beaches along the "Maya Riviera," normally a sun-blessed
playground of huge hotels, aquatic parks and golf courses.

Tourists hunkered down in emergency refuges in and around
Cancun, one of the world's most famed beach resorts. Soldiers
packed 2,000 visitors from three luxury hotels into a makeshift
shelter in a gymnasium and barred the doors.

"I am dying here," screamed Spanish tourist Juan Moreno,
27, from Madrid as he banged on a locked iron gate. There was
no fan or air conditioning, and hotel staff tied to calm down a
woman who was hyperventilating.

Hotel management said the tourists were locked in for their
own safety with the hurricane poised to slam into the Yucatan
Peninsula around midnight more than 70 miles south of Cancun.

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

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

"We're pretty terrified. I lived through Gilbert," said
Ezequiel 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.

Emily killed four people in Jamaica when it brushed past
the Caribbean island early on Sunday. In Mexico, two pilots
were killed on Saturday night when a gust of wind blew their
helicopter into the Gulf of Mexico during oil rig evacuations.

The state oil company Pemex cut off most oil production in
the Campeche Sound, the southern Gulf of Mexico basin that
produces 80 percent of the country's crude and some 15,000 oil
rig workers were being pulled out before Emily hit.

"The bulk are already evacuated and the last few are
arriving back onshore now," a Pemex spokesman said.

Shell Oil Co. shut some U.S. natural gas and oil output
ahead of the storm's expected arrival in the Gulf of Mexico on


Some 60,000 people piled into hurricane shelters across the
state of Quintana Roo, including tourists who had failed to
make last-minute flights home.

The second major hurricane of the season, Emily was rated
an "extremely dangerous" Category 4 on the five-step scale of
hurricane intensity, capable of doing severe damage to
infrastructure. Forecasters warned of coastal flooding.

At 8 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT), Emily was at latitude 19.6 north
and longitude 85.9 west, or 90 miles southeast of Cozumel
island, and moving west-northwest near 20 mph (32 kph).
Hurricane winds extended out 60 miles from the center.

With flights canceled, petrified tourists joined Mexicans
in stockpiling food and water as shops and bars boarded up
their windows. As the wind picked up people scurried to safety
clutching stacks of takeout pizza.

Foreigners were bedded down in the lobbies of luxury hotels
inland from the coast as night fell. Flimsier hotels near the
coast were closed and boarded up for the night.

"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.

Some in Cancun refused shelter. "This is our first
hurricane and we want to see it," said Jonathan Morisset from
Quebec, Canada, planning to stay outside with his girlfriend.

Others groaned at a suspension on alcohol sales.

"The party's off in Cancun," said Andrew Lechance, 41, from

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

Tiny Belize, which borders the Yucatan to the south, issued
a tropical storm warning.