McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
Hurricane Dean, a Category Five storm, steams
on its way to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. In this
August 20 image from NASA's QuikScat satellite,
white arrows show wind direction superimposed
on color images of wind speed.
Image credit: NASA/JPL
On the brink of becoming a top-rank Category 5 terror, poised to escalate its assault early Tuesday under cover of darkness, Dean menaced a tourist region called the Maya Riviera, the city of Chetumal and one of the world's most crucial oil operations.
Its work was done in Jamaica, where at least two people died, many houses were shattered or flooded or both, and the cleanup was under way.
Now, it was Mexico's turn. Rain arrived around 5 p.m. EDT, the leading edge of genuine trouble.
"We'll take them out by force," Tulum Mayor Jorge Luis Cordoba Pech said of anyone who resists evacuation. Many residents of the coastal town live in tin-and-wood shanties. "We can't let them lose their lives."
At the same time, Mexico's state-run Pemex oil company hurriedly ordered 18,000 workers to abandon offshore oil rigs, suspending production at all 407 wells and drilling operations in the area.
Forecasters said Dean's ferocious core would crash into the Yucatan early Tuesday with winds as high as 160 mph. As the storm approached land, the wind already screamed at 150 mph, just 6 mph below the Category 5 threshold.
In Jamaica, which avoided a direct hit, officials reported extensive _ but possibly not catastrophic — damage including collapsed houses, destroyed roofs, heavy flooding and impassable roads in many parishes.
The road connecting Kingston to its airport was transformed into a sea of sand, an obstacle course of boulders and downed power lines. That airport remained closed, though the airport in Montego Bay reopened late Monday.
It could have been much worse in Jamaica. Dean already was held responsible for nine deaths in Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, St. Lucia and Dominica. Four people were missing in the Dominican Republic and presumed dead.
"There always seems to be somebody looking out for Jamaica," said Vernon Thompson, 56, who lives in the Caribbean Terrace neighborhood, near Kingston's airport. "No matter how bad things are, we always seem to come out quite well."
For residents of the tiny Cayman Islands, the news was even better Monday:
Dean's vicious eye wall and other hurricane winds bypassed them, veering to the south, though the islands still were subjected to heavy rain, strong gusts and battering 16-foot waves.
Much of the attention, however, turned Monday to Mexico, likely to become Dean's final destination — and its most punished victim.
Dean was expected to push diagonally across the Yucatan from east to west, roaring over populated areas, ancient Mayan ruins, jungles and the western state of Campeche, with 750,000 residents.
Hurricane warnings were posted on both coasts of the Yucatan and in neighboring Belize.
Among the places most at risk: Chetumal, a bayside city of 215,000 people that sits on the border with Belize, and the towns of Tulum, Punta Allen, Mahahual, Felipe Carrillo Puerto and Los Limones.
Many high-end resorts have been built in recent years in that area to serve visitors to nearby ancient Mayan ruins.
Forecasters warned of 5 to 10 inches of rain throughout the region, which includes mountainous sections of Guatemala and Honduras, where flash floods and mudslides can threaten lives.
Another ominous prediction: storm surge flooding of 12 to 18 feet near and to the north of where Dean makes landfall.
As an early precaution, roads leading south to that region from Cancun were closed Monday, with police manning roadblocks.
It looked as though the vacation centers of Cancun and Cozumel would be spared. Nevertheless, 70,000 tourists and 20,000 residents were evacuated from the region.
At Cancun's airport, tourists and residents slept on the floor, hoping to board one of the last flights out.
"It doesn't make us feel good," said Emily Mastalerz of Rhode Island, who traveled to Cancun for her honeymoon but made a premature — and logistically difficult — escape Monday. "What are you going to do?"
Farther south, directly in the line of fire, officials evacuated small towns along the Caribbean coast, including Punta Allen, a dangerously exposed fishing village and tourist magnet at the tip of a peninsula about 100 miles south of Cancun.
But the heart of the activity — and the concern — was in Chetumal, 200 miles south of Cancun and directly in Dean's path. The city sits next to Belize on Chetumal Bay and is a trading partner with its neighbor.
There, officials dispatched hundreds of police officers and soldiers, including 120 federal police officers from Cancun, to maintain order and conduct post-storm recovery actions.
The storm already delivered a blow to one of Mexico's most important natural resources _ oil. Off-shore drilling is the state's most important industry and Pemex shut it completely Monday.
That will reduce worldwide production by 2.65 million barrels of oil and 2.6 billion cubic feet of natural gas every day.
But analysts, relieved that U.S. facilities would not be affected, said the Bay of Campeche shutdown — if brief — likely would not affect U.S. supplies or prices.
In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, earlier victims of the season's first hurricane shouldered the difficult job of cleaning up and patching up. Officials of both countries described the damage as minimal.
Said Yolene Surena, an emergency coordinator for the Haitian government: "There was more fear than pain."
Resident of the Yucatan could only hope to be so fortunate.
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondents Trenton Daniel in Haiti and Jim Wyss in the Dominican Republic, Kevin G. Hall of McClatchy's Washington bureau and special correspondent Shurna Robbins in Grand Cayman contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, The Miami Herald.
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