Hurricane Dean skirted the Cayman Islands on Monday and raced toward Mexico’s resort-dotted Caribbean coast, where tens of thousands of tourists fled what could become a mammoth category-five storm.
The airport at Mexico’s biggest resort, Cancun, was packed with departing tourists on Monday and the usually crowded hotel strip was nearly empty. Mexico’s state oil company evacuated workers from rigs in the oil-rich Gulf of Campeche, in the storm’s path.
But there was relief in the Cayman Islands. The government announced the territory had been ”spared the brunt of Hurricane Dean”.
Hours earlier, it looked like disaster was descending on the islands as the category-four storm with winds of 240km/h bore down late on Sunday after battering Jamaica.
”Whichever God you believe in, now is the time to bow your head and pray to him,” evacuation-shelter coordinator Zemrie Thompson told 100 people camped for safety on Sunday night at John Gray High School.
Dean’s eye passed about 160km south of the Caymans and the government said the strongest gusts here were measured at 92km/h.
The storm has killed at least eight people across the Caribbean.
The hurricane could reach the highest level, category five, with maximum winds greater than 249km/h later on Monday, the United States National Hurricane Centre in Miami said.
Stuart Jack, Governor of the British territory, said Cayman Islands authorities had evacuated all but 1 500 tourists and set up 19 storm shelters that housed about 2 200 people.
Jamaica avoided a direct hit when the storm passed to the south on Sunday night. There were no deaths reported in Jamaica, but the storm uprooted trees, flooded roads and tore the roofs off many homes, businesses and a prison block. No prisoners escaped.
Police said officers got into a shootout with looters at a shopping centre in the central parish of Clarendon, but nobody was hurt. Curfews were in effect until Monday evening. Authorities also cut power on the island to prevent damage to the power grid, leaving more than 125 000 customers without power.
By noon GMT on Monday, Dean was centred about 710km east of Belize City and travelling west at about 33km/h, the US National Hurricane Centre said.
Many tourists who did not get flights out took shelter at places like Sandals Whitehouse, a resort that has buildings capable of withstanding a powerful storm.
Trinice Tyler, a postal worker from Lake Elsinore, California, said she would weather the storm there ”on my knees praying”.
”I’m celebrating my 40th birthday today, and it’s going to be a birthday to remember,” she said.
Fishermen hauled their skiffs inland and cruise ships changed their course to avoid the storm on Sunday.
The National Hurricane Centre said the first hurricane of the Atlantic season was projected to have sustained winds of 260km/h before plowing into Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on Tuesday. The Mexican mainland or Texas could be hit later. There was also a hurricane warning in effect for Belize’s coast.
Among those fleeing Cancun was Florida Volynskaya (24), of Baltimore, Maryland, who camped out on the airport terminal’s floor awaiting a flight. ”We just wanted to get out anywhere,” she said. ”We really didn’t want to be in a shelter.”
Twelve empty planes arrived on Sunday to move travellers out, said airport spokesperson Eduardo Rivadeneira. The state government also set up 530 shelters with a capacity of 73 000 people.
The hurricane created massive waves and surges up to 6m high as it passed the Dominican Republic on Saturday, flooding roads and drowning a boy. At least two people were killed and about 150 homes were destroyed in Haiti, emergency officials said. — Sapa-AP