CANCUN, Mexico, July 18 (Reuters) - Hurricane Emily pounded Mexico's Caribbean beach resorts early on Monday, driving many tourists out of their fancy seafront hotels and into shelters to escape its destruction.
Packing 135-mph (215-kph) winds, Emily knocked out power, toppled trees and whipped up huge waves at the popular resort of Cancun and along the "Maya Riviera," normally a playground of white beaches, aquatic parks and golf courses.
Thousands of tourists cut short their beach vacations and fled for home over the weekend. But many were unable to leave or decided to see it through, so they hunkered down as the Category 4 hurricane tore in from the Caribbean.
"This is my first trip outside the United States and then this happens ... I'm just going to keep praying," said Rod Jones, a schoolteacher from Michigan, as he sat nervously in a blacked-out hotel room early on Monday, clutching a pillow.
Outside, trees were bent over and large branches were ripped off and dragged along the streets.
Mexico shut down most of the offshore wells in its most productive oil fields, and two ports that export crude were closed due to churning seas.
Luxury beachfront hotels were boarded up, so inland hotels put up the 5-star refugees as well as local residents. Some squeezed in 15 people per room and schools and gymnasiums were also used in the operation to protect about 60,000 people.
Soldiers packed 2,000 visitors from three luxury hotels into one gymnasium in Cancun and simply 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.
Many locals who live in ramshackle houses feared for their homes as they packed a few possessions and headed for shelter.
"We live on a ranch about 10 km (six miles) from here and I don't know if the roof is going to bear up. We left everything covered by tarpaulins," said Ezequiel Martinez, 53, a welder taking refuge at a shelter in Playa del Carmen.
Many feared a repeat of Hurricane Gilbert, which tore up Cancun in 1988, razing homes and killing hundreds.
Emily killed four people when a car was swept away by flood waters in Jamaica on Sunday. Two pilots were killed in Mexico on Saturday night when their helicopter was blown by a gust of wind 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 Mexico's crude, and some 15,000 oil rig workers were pulled out before Emily hit. Oil prices jumped more than 1 percent in response to the supply cut.
Emily is expected to weaken as it crosses the Yucatan Peninsula on Monday but could strengthen again once it heads out over the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane watches were likely to be issued on Monday for the southern Texas coast and northeastern Mexico.
At 2 a.m. EDT (0600 GMT), the hurricane's center was just southwest of Cozumel island, famous for its scuba diving, and was expected to hit the mainland within an hour. Hurricane winds extended out 60 miles (95 km) from the center.
The second major hurricane of the season, Emily was rated an "extremely dangerous" Category 4 on the five-step scale of intensity, capable of doing severe damage to infrastructure. Forecasters warned of coastal flooding, dangerous waves and heavy rainfall.
Thousands of tourists packed into Cancun's airport on Sunday in a desperate and chaotic search for a flight out.
Once flights were canceled, tourists joined Mexicans in stockpiling food and water as shops and bars boarded up their windows.
Some refused shelter. "This is our first hurricane and we want to see it," said Jonathan Morisset from Quebec, Canada, who said he planned to stay outside with his girlfriend.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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