Rina weakens to storm as nears Mexican resorts
PLAYA DEL CARMEN/CANCUN, Mexico
PLAYA DEL CARMEN/CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - Hurricane Rina weakened to a tropical storm on Thursday as it swept toward Mexico's Caribbean coast after causing travel chaos and spurring evacuations from island resorts.
Rina is expected to continue to weaken as it sweeps the eastern coast of the Yucatan peninsula by evening, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said. The coast is home to the strip of resorts known as the Riviera Maya.
In Playa del Carmen, strong rain had eased by the morning although the sea was choppy and the dock for ships to the tourist island of Cozumel was closed.
While most souvenir and gift shops on the pedestrian boulevard 5th Avenue had their steel shutters drawn, only a few beach-front properties had their windows secured with wooden panels.
"Normally, this plaza is full of vendors," said dock watchman Jose Antonio Palma.
"They've all been gone since yesterday. They say the storm is weakening but we have to be prepared for anything. That's what we learned from Wilma. Whatever can be blown around we've cleared out of here."
The Yucatan coast and Cancun, where heavy rain kept beaches empty on Thursday morning, were devastated in 2005 by Hurricane Wilma, the most intense storm ever recorded in the Atlantic, and local people still have keen memories of the damage.
About 13,000 tourists have left Cancun since Tuesday and more than 90 flights in and out of Cancun were canceled for Thursday, although the airport remained open. Hundreds of passengers loaded with luggage had flocked to the airport on Wednesday, trying to get out before the storm hit.
Rina lost much of its punch since Wednesday, when it was a Category 2 hurricane on a five-level scale, with winds now dropping to 70 mph (110 kph). Still, authorities in Cancun's home state of Quintana Roo had advised people in vulnerable areas to take cover.
Rina is not expected to affect Mexico's main oil installations in the Gulf of Mexico or coffee-growing areas in Central America that were battered by heavy rains this month.
RAIN AND BIG WAVES
Even with the downgrades, Rina is expected to cause downpours and potentially dangerous waves. Most schools in Quintana Roo closed as a safety precaution.
More than 4,000 residents and visitors were evacuated from the islands of Isla Mujeres and Holbox, which is low-lying and prone to flooding.
The sixth hurricane in the 2011 Atlantic season, Rina was located about 90 miles (145 km) south of Cozumel Island, famous for its diving and coral reefs, at 10 a.m. CDT/1500 GMT on Thursday, and was moving northwest at 6 mph (9 kph).
The hurricane could dump 3 to 6 inches (8 to 15 cm) of rain over the eastern Yucatan peninsula. A storm surge is also possible, raising tide levels as much as 3 feet (0.9 meters) above normal along the coast.
The head of Mexico's West Coast National Marine Park, Jaime Gonzalez, said the hurricane would likely erode Cancun's famous white-sand beaches, which have been rebuilt twice since Wilma stripped away nearly 60 percent of the city's sand. (Additional reporting by Anahi Rama; writing by Dave Graham and Mica Rosenberg; editing by Mohammad Zargham and Eric Beech)
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