TULUM, Mexico (Reuters) - Thousands of tourists headed for makeshift shelters on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on Monday to escape from Hurricane Dean, a potentially catastrophic storm which killed nine people in the Caribbean.
Police ordered vehicles off the road and banned the sale of alcohol on the “Mayan Riviera”, a strip of beach resorts with bright white sands that is yet to fully recover from the devastation of Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
With winds near 150 mph (240 kph), Dean was likely to become a rare Category 5 — the strongest type of hurricane — before making landfall near Mexico’s border with Belize early on Tuesday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
The approaching storm brought back nightmare memories of Wilma, the strongest Atlantic storm recorded, which wrecked Cancun and other beach resorts. It washed away whole beaches, killed seven people and caused $2.6 billion in damages.
“A Category 5 is horrible. We’ve been through that,” said . Marcos Ruiz, 31, a tourism ministry official in the resort of Tulum, just north of Dean’s path. “The wind is so strong you can’t breathe.”
Popular with European tourists, Tulum was particularly in danger as many of its arty hotels and cabins are built next to the sea.
Thousands of tourists and local residents were told to go to 2,000 shelters across the Yucatan Peninsula,
“I hate the waiting,” said Scottish film producer Abbie Harper, 27, one of 150 tourists in Tulum who were taken further inland to a cramped hotel without air conditioning.
Belize, a former British colony that is home to some 250,000 people and a famous barrier reef, was also in Dean’s sights. Prime Minister Said Musa went into an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss contingency plans and heavy rain began to fall in Belize City.
Dean swiped Jamaica at the weekend with howling winds and pelting rain. Roads were blocked by toppled trees and power poles. A man had been reported missing in Jamaica but police said they could not confirm any casualties
The U.S. space shuttle Endeavour is to return to Earth from the International Space Station a day early in case the storm forces NASA to evacuate its Houston center.
Some 70,000 tourists have fled Cancun and the nearby area in recent days but the resort, whose five-star hotels were gutted by ferocious wind and waves in 2005, was not forecast to take a major hit this time around.
The few tourists still left there wandered through stores picking up food and drink.
The windows of shops and restaurants on the vacation island of Cozumel, a major scuba diving center, were boarded up as winds slowly began to get stronger.
Poor local residents with badly built homes are often the worst hit by hurricanes in Mexico.
“Let’s see if the house can stand it. If not, we’ll go to the shelter,” said Luisa Villafana, 27, an office cleaner who shares a thatched-roof home with eight other people near the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto.
Category 5 hurricanes are rare but in 2005 there were four, including Katrina which devastated New Orleans. The number of high power storms is reinforcing research that suggests global warming may increase the strength of tropical cyclones.
The latest computer tracking models forecast the hurricane would spare the U.S. Gulf Coast but cross the Yucatan to the Campeche Sound in the southern Gulf of Mexico and then hit central Mexico.
Mexico is closing and evacuating all of its 407 oil and gas wells in the Campeche Sound due to Hurricane Dean, meaning lost production of 2.65 million barrels of crude per day.
Four people were killed by the storm in Haiti, U.N. officials said, putting the number killed at nine since Dean roared into the Caribbean.
Dean was on Monday passing more than 125 miles to the southwest of the tiny Cayman Islands, a British territory in the western Caribbean.