Hurricane bashes Mexico resorts, heads for US border

By Anahi Rama and Tim Gaynor

PUERTO AVENTURAS, Mexico, July 18 (Reuters) - Hurricane Emily slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula on Monday, smashing hotels and homes in the main resort areas and halting all of Mexico's oil exports before heading back to sea for a new strike toward the U.S. border.

Tens of thousands of locals and tourists along the popular "Maya Riviera" coastline of white beaches and blue-green seas rode out winds of 135 mph (215 kph) and torrential rain in makeshift shelters.

Several people died in Mexico in incidents indirectly caused by the powerful storm, which killed at least four in Jamaica.

Emergency workers in Tamaulipas state near the Texas border were evacuating some people on Monday night ahead of the hurricane's expected arrival there.

Mexico's major Caribbean resorts escaped largely unscathed but the small seaside town of Puerto Aventuras was roughed up.

Howling winds battered hotels and luxury condominiums in the town, knocking out windows and uprooting thatched huts on idyllic beaches, now littered with debris.

Emily also blew away flimsy homes made of tin sheets and flood waters poured through others, sweeping away furniture.

"We haven't started rebuilding anything yet. We assume the government will help us," said David Diaz, a forlorn old man resting with his son and grandchildren in the doorway of what had been his humble home of wood and tin.

In the nearby resort of Playa del Carmen, almost all stores were closed and electricity was out. Residents waded through inundated streets and mopped water out of their homes.

"Look at all this. It is awful. None of us could sleep in the house," said Andrea Velez, 58, whose house and adjoining restaurant took a beating.

At the local airstrip, a small parked plane was tossed into the air and jammed between a tree and a rickety hut.

Mexico closed down most offshore oil production and ports in the Gulf of Mexico, knocking out 2.95 million barrels of crude a day in output until midweek and freezing all exports.

Mexico is one of the main suppliers of crude to the United States and news of a production cut briefly forced a spike in world oil prices.

Cars picked their way through streets strewn with branches in Cancun, the main earner in Mexico's key tourism industry.

Tourists vacated the coastal strip's bars, luxury hotels and aquatic parks, but some thrill-seeking foreigners were even disappointed.

"I have lived through three hurricanes, and I was expecting a lot more entertainment," said Andre Elwes, 29, a Canadian who operates a tourist submarine in Cozumel.

At one point a Category 4 hurricane, the second highest level on forecasters' scale of storm intensity, Emily weakened to Category 1 on Monday afternoon before it headed out into the Gulf of Mexico, where it was expected to gather power again.

"Restrengthening is expected and Emily could regain major hurricane status before landfall," the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said.


The storm, traveling at 16 mph (26 kph) was due to hit the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas near the U.S. border on Tuesday night and a hurricane warning was in place for the coast of southern Texas.

Officials in Tamaulipas said they had begun to evacuate residents from from areas close to beaches and rivers.

In Cancun, many locals had feared a repeat of Hurricane Gilbert, which tore up the town in 1988, razing homes and killing hundreds.

But storm warning systems and evacuation procedures have improved greatly since then. The civil protection agency said it had shelters capable of holding more than 300,000 people.

With luxury beachfront hotels boarded up, inland hotels opened ballrooms and conference rooms to rows of sleeping couples and families. Others squeezed in 15 people per room.

Emily killed five people in Jamaica, including a mother and her two young children whose car was swept away by flood waters on Sunday. One of the dead was a man who tried to rescue them, police said.

In Mexico, two pilots were killed on Saturday when their helicopter was blown into the Gulf of Mexico during oil rig evacuations. And a German died when he touched a high tension wire while pruning a tree at his home in Playa del Carmen as Emily approached.

Mexican radio said a child had died after catching a lung disease in a musty storm shelter but the report could not immediately be confirmed. (Additional reporting by Anahi Rama in Playa del Carmen and Horace Helps in Jamaica)


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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