Hurricane Dean aims for Mexico's Yucatan (Texas on Red Alert)
GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands - Hurricane Dean spared the Cayman Islands the worst of its fury on Monday as it headed for a collision course with Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, sending tourists fleeing for the airports and locals searching for higher ground.
Dean was already a powerful Category 4 storm as it raked the Cayman Islands. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said it could grow into a monstrous Category 5 hurricane before slashing across the Yucatan Peninsula and emerging in the Gulf of Campeche, dotted with oil rigs.
Dean was several days from Texas and its path still uncertain, but the state is already saturated after an unusually rainy summer and officials were taking no changes — emergency operations centers opened, prison inmates were moved inland, and sandbags distributed.
The Mexican resort city of Cancun began evacuations and arranged for extra flights to help tens of thousands of tourists leave before Dean's arrival. The hotel zone was quiet on Monday, nearly all guests gone.
Florida Volynskaya, 24, of Baltimore, Md., arrived at Cancun's airport Sunday planning to spend the night on the floor in hopes of getting a flight out.
"We just wanted to get out anywhere," said Volynskaya. "We really didn't want to be in a shelter."
Though forecasts had shifted the projected track to the south, Cancun still could face tropical-storm-force winds — forecast to extend over an area of about 75,000 square miles — and local fishermen were taking precautions.
"We're leaving. You don't play around with nature," said Maclovio Manuel Kanul as he pulled equipment out of his beachfront fishing shack near Cancun.
"We still haven't been able to recover from Wilma, and now this is coming."
Hurricane Wilma ravaged Cancun in 2005, filling hotel lobbies with shattered metal, marble, glass and muck, and reducing beaches to thin strips. The storm caused $3 billion in damage, the largest insured losses in Mexican history.
Dean — the first hurricane of the Atlantic season — bore down late Sunday on the Cayman Islands after battering Jamaica, but the vulnerable British territory said Monday it had been "spared the brunt of Hurricane Dean."
In one Cayman shelter — the gymnasium of John Gray High School — about 100 people gathered around radios Sunday night, listening to the latest news about the hurricane.
"Whichever God you believe in, now is the time to bow your head and pray to him," said Zemrie Thompson, the shelter coordinator. Those in the gym bowed their heads.
The storm has killed at least eight people as it has moved across the Caribbean.
Dean's eye passed some 100 miles south of the Caymans, and the islands were spared hurricane-force winds, which extended outward up to 60 miles from the center.
Early Monday, Dean had maximum sustained winds of 150 mph, up from 145 mph Sunday, and could dump up to 20 inches of rain. Even if the hurricane continues a steady westward course toward Mexico, parts of the already saturated state could be flooded by the storm's outer bands.
"Our mission is very simple. It's to get people out of the kill zone, to get people out of the danger area, which is the coastline of Texas," said Johnny Cavazos, chief emergency director of Cameron County, at Texas' southern tip.
Jamaica avoided the direct hit when the storm wound up passing to the south 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 center in the central Jamaican 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.
The government set up more than 1,000 shelters in converted schools, churches and the indoor national sports arena, but only 47 were occupied as the storm moved in, said Cecil Bailey of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management.
As of 8 a.m. EDT Monday, Dean was centered about 440 miles east of Belize City and traveling west at about 21 mph, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
George Lee, mayor of the Portmore community near the Jamaican capital Kingston, said appeals to evacuate went unheeded. Some islanders said they were afraid for their belongings if they moved to shelters.
"Too much crime in Kingston. I'm not leaving my home," Paul Lyn said in Port Royal, east of Kingston.
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, Calif., 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.
The National Hurricane Center said the first hurricane of the Atlantic season was projected to have sustained winds of 160 mph 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.
Re: Hurricane Dean aims for Mexico's Yucatan (Texas on Red Alert)
HOUSTON — Even with powerful Hurricane Dean days away and its path uncertain, officials in sodden south Texas left little to chance Sunday, readying planes, gasoline and hundreds of buses to get residents out in a hurry.
Authorities passed out sandbags, evacuated inmates and opened emergency operations centers in a region still soaked from the remnants of Tropical Storm Erin, which along with other systems caused severe flooding Sunday and at least 13 deaths from Texas to Minnesota.
"We're preparing for Hurricane Dean just as if it is going to be a direct hit," said Johnny Cavazos, the chief emergency director for Cameron County at the state's southernmost tip.
• PHOTO ESSAY: Hurricane Dean
A state of emergency was declared in the resort town of South Padre Island. About 3,300 jail and prison inmates in the area were to be bused to correctional facilities elsewhere by Sunday night.
In Washington, R. David Paulison, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said up to 100,000 people might have to be evacuated from the state's southeastern coast and its immigrant shantytowns near the Mexican border. The storm is on course for northern Mexico, but could shift and hit the region around Brownsville, Texas, Paulison said.
Hurricane Dean Slams Jamaica as Catagory 4 Storm Photo Essays
Dean Hits Jamaica • Click here to track Hurricane Dean.
Flooding from what was left of Erin forced about 1,000 people to evacuate homes in Abilene on Sunday and was blamed for at least 13 deaths in Texas, Oklahoma and Minnesota.
The level of preparation for Dean was influenced by memories of two destructive hurricanes that hammered the Gulf Coast region in 2005.
"In part, it is because of the unfortunate events from Rita and Katrina," Cavazos said.
During Rita, the evacuation quickly turned into a nightmare of clogged highways, stalled traffic and sweltering heat, as motorists from the coast ran into residents fleeing Houston. Gas stations ran out of fuel and supplies, and drivers sat for hours on gridlocked evacuation routes.
Dean was a Category Four storm late Sunday, threatening to pour as much as 20 inches of rain on Jamaica. The National Hurricane Center in Miami said it was projected to reach the most dangerous hurricane classification, Category 5, with wind of 160 mph before crashing into the Mexican coastline near Cancun on Monday night or Tuesday.
The storm was forecast to make landfall Wednesday, likely along the coast of northern Mexico, the hurricane center said.
Even if Mexico gets the brunt of the storm, Texas could still get soaked by Dean's outer bands of heavy rain, Cavazos said.
A Home Depot in Brownsville ran out of its supply of plywood Sunday as people rushed to board up windows, and about 60 people waited in line for a new shipment to arrive. Other customers crowded the store scooping up batteries, generators, water and flashlights, assistant store manager Edward Gonzalez said.
"We're hoping it misses us, but it is a huge, huge storm," said Gonzalez. "Everyone says they're not going to take chances. They're going to board up windows and be ready to ride it out."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry mobilized the National Guard and search and rescue teams, shipped 60,000 to 80,000 barrels of gasoline to gas stations in the Rio Grande Valley, and got a pre-emptive federal disaster declaration from President Bush.
The state sent six C-130 aircraft to Cameron County to help if any critically ill patients need to be evacuated from local hospital. Buses from the city, state, and military were on standby for possible evacuations, including a fleet of 700 sent by the governor's office. Another 600 buses were on standby in San Antonio.
"Being this prepared is expensive and, at times, it's inconvenient, but I'd rather be safe than sorry," Cavazos said.