Hurricane Jimena lashes Mexican Pacific resort

LOS CABOS, Mexico (Reuters) - Hurricane Jimena slammed Mexico’s Baja California peninsula with howling winds on Tuesday and drenched the upscale Los Cabos resort area where tourists hunkered in boarded-up hotels.

The storm’s windspeed eased as it neared land, and the U.S. National Hurricane Center said Jimena was now a Category 3 storm packing 125 mph winds with higher gusts, rather than an extremely dangerous Category 4.

Sheets of rain poured down from dark gray skies as Jimena’s winds buffeted the tip of the peninsula, home to world-class golf courses, yachting marinas and five-star hotels. The hurricane was forecast to make landfall on Wednesday in a sparsely populated area farther up the peninsula.

Swanky hotels nailed boards over their windows, wrapped exposed furniture with plastic and turned conference rooms into storm shelters with camp bedding and board games.

A beachfront hotel at Cabo San Lucas tied a fountain statue of the sea god Neptune to palm trees and anchored a lobby chandelier to the ground with ropes to stop them blowing away.

Poor families, hotel workers and builders huddled in shelters in schools after 5,000 people were evacuated.

Torrential rain flooded main roads, turned streets in one shanty town into muddy rivers and caused a sewage system in the town of San Jose del Cabo to overflow.

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Many tourists were trapped as flights out were canceled.

“I’ve never experienced anything remotely like this,” said real estate investor Reg Wilson, 36, from Orange County, California. “I have no idea what to expect. We don’t have a lot of options so we just have to ride this out.”

Jimena came close overnight to becoming a Category 5 storm -- the top of the Saffir-Simpson scale and potentially devastating -- but weakened as it approached land.

People in Los Cabos were still scared. “I’ve never seen a storm this big in the 23 years I have lived here,” said Caterina Acevedo.

Jimena’s winds knocked down a power line, which lay on the ground firing sparks into the air, and Mexicans from a slum just north of Los Cabos fretted as they sheltered in a school that their flimsy homes could blow away or sink into mud.

“People are really worried,” said Ilda Ramirez, 33, who lives in a shack made from cardboard and scrap materials. “I know we could end up losing everything.”

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Mexico has no oil installations or significant coffee and mining interests in the area. Cabo San Lucas port was closed.

An Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development meeting of officials from dozens of countries to discuss tax havens had to be moved from Los Cabos to Mexico City.

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Much of Baja California is desert and mountains that are popular with nature lovers, surfers, sport fishermen and retirees. Los Cabos, normally bathed in brilliant sun from dawn to dusk, attracts planeloads of tourists all year round.

“We did a last-minute booking and ended up getting a hurricane,” said tourist Cathy Hallock, 60, from California.

Many residents of shanty towns refused to leave, despite city buses waiting to take them to emergency shelters.

Jimena was about 110 miles southwest of Cabo San Lucas and moving northwest at 12 mph.

The Hurricane Center forecast it would dump 5 to 10 inches of rain on southern Baja California and create a storm surge and coastal flooding. “These rains could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides,” it said.

Yachts, water taxis and glass-bottomed boats had been removed from the water at the port of Cabo San Lucas.

Colleen Johnson, 55, who just moved here from Canada, stocked up on water, batteries and canned food. “We’re a little leery, but I think we are doing everything right,” she said at a Wal-Mart store that had run out of rain ponchos.

Jimena is the second hurricane of the 2009 eastern Pacific season to pound Mexico. Hurricane Andres swept a fisherman to his death in Acapulco in June.

Additional reporting by Susy Buchanan; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Cynthia Osterman