Ernesto starts across Mexico's Yucatan

2012-08-08 09:00

Chetumal — Hurricane Ernesto spun inland over Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula early on Wednesday while hundreds of fishermen who fled low-lying villages for shelters and tourists evacuated from resorts to inland hotels hunkered down for a stormy night.

Ernesto had sustained winds of 140km/h when it swept over the shore town of Mahuahal shortly before midnight on Tuesday and moved into a sparsely populated coastal region, the US National Hurricane Centre said. The storm was moving west at 24km/h and was expected to weaken during the night.

There were no early reports of damage, but it might be morning before officials could assess whether Ernesto's rain and wind caused problems.

Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo state, was the closest city and officials moved more than 1 300 tourists there from resorts in Mahuahal, Balacar and other coastal spots that were expected to see heavier rain and wind.

In the city of Tulum to the north, about 6 000 tourists sheltered in hotels away from the beach, and authorities said the buildings were strong enough to qualify as storm shelters.

Luana Antonicelli, a 23-year-old tourist from Melbourne, Australia, travelling with her 20-year-old brother, said they left their beachfront cabana surrounded by tropical jungle and decided to spend the night at the Hotel Tulum, a 20-room, one-storey building about 3km inland.

Hunkering down

"The people at our hotel told us to come into town because it's too dangerous to stay there," Antonicelli said.

She said most people at the Hotel Tulum were hunkering down inside their rooms even though it was only raining lightly on Tuesday night. Hotel workers were distributing candles but the hotel still had electricity.

"It's a bit annoying because I want to be on the beach, but these things happen," Antonicelli said, adding that she and her brother decided to stay outdoors as much as possible. "I see it as an adventure."

Authorities also prepared two kindergartens in Tulum as shelters for up to 220 people, but only 20 people had showed up by Tuesday afternoon at one.

Cruz Garcia, a tourist guide, came to the shelter with his wife from Punta Allen, a low-lying coastal settlement.

"To be over there is a risk because the tide rises and there could be a disaster," Garcia said, adding that he twice went through strong hurricanes while living in the neighbouring state of Campeche.

Ships put off arrival

Soldiers and police evacuated all residents of Punta Allen, and authorities were preparing for the evacuation of people from other low-lying coastal settlements, said Luis Gamboa of Quintana Roo's Civil Protection office.

Two cruises ships scheduled to dock on the Riviera Maya put off their arrival.

The storm's path kept to the south of the big resort areas of Cancun and the Riviera Maya, but officials prepared shelters there as a precaution.

Forecasters said Ernesto was expected to cross Yucatan by Wednesday evening and enter the southern Gulf of Mexico in an area dotted with offshore oil platforms owned by the state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos.

Its predicted course would then take it to Mexico's Gulf coast near the city of Veracruz, and the US hurricane centre said it might become a hurricane again just before reaching there around Thursday evening.

On its way to Yucatan, the storm swirled over open sea parallel to Honduras' northern coast, but officials there said the storm hadn't caused damage or injuries.

Mexican authorities warned of possible flooding in some of the region threatened by Ernesto, where swollen rivers in the past have swept away houses, livestock and people and collapsed mountainsides.

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Gilma formed in the Pacific Ocean about 1 000km west of Manzanillo, Mexico, with winds of 64km/h. The storm was not expected to threaten land.