CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - Hurricane Rina sent tourists packing on Mexico’s Caribbean coast on Wednesday as the storm bore down on popular beach resorts like Cancun, leading to evacuations and travel chaos.
The Category 1 hurricane was expected to sweep by the eastern coast of the Yucatan peninsula, home to the strip of resorts known as the Riviera Maya, by Thursday evening, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.
Cancun’s airport stayed open, but more than 90 flights in and out of the city were canceled for Thursday. Hundreds of passengers loaded with luggage formed long lines at airport counters, trying to get out before the storm hit.
Danielle Selvin and Justin Harris from Los Angeles, decided to cut their visit short when they learned about Rina.
“We just figured that we’d rather be home where it’s dry and the sun is still shining,” said Selvin, 23, as they stood in line to try to get a refund for their original flight.
Though Rina was earlier downgraded from a Category 2 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale, with winds dropping to 85 mph, emergency services in Cancun’s home state of Quintana Roo advised people in vulnerable areas to take cover.
Juan Carlos Gonzalez, Quintana Roo’s secretary of tourism, earlier on Wednesday urged prospective travelers to reschedule their vacations to avoid running into Rina.
The weakened storm posed little danger to tourists already there, but many were dejected by Rina’s arrival.
“Rina ruined our plans,” said Raquel Cortes, on her honeymoon in Cancun. “We wanted to go to the beach, scuba dive and go to the marine parks ... we can’t get in the ocean.”
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. All of Mexico’s ports in the Gulf of Mexico, including major oil exporting terminals, were open on Wednesday afternoon.
In Cancun’s poorer neighborhoods, emergency workers made rounds to encourage people to move to public shelters.
“Above all, we’re acting in flood prone areas with fragile housing, which are the zones we have to evacuate first,” said Felix Diaz, head of civil protection for the Cancun area.
People were urged not to go to Cancun’s airport unless they had confirmed reservations.
Vacationers along the coast of the Yucatan were met with cloudy skies and sporadic heavy rains. Beaches near the hotel zone emptied during the day, and many stores closed early.
Cancun was devastated in 2005 by Hurricane Wilma, the most intense storm ever recorded in the Atlantic, and locals still have keen memories of the damage.
”After Wilma, how could I be afraid of this storm?“ said soft drink salesman Mario Gomez, 45. ”Even that day, I was the last one to leave. I didn’t want to go before all my fruit was sold and I still have cold drinks to sell today.
“I’ll be here tomorrow, too,” he added.
Even with the downgrade, Rina is still expected to cause downpours and potentially dangerous waves. Most schools in Quintana Roo closed as a safety precaution.
About 2,800 people were being evacuated from low-lying Holbox Island, off the Yucatan’s northeastern tip, including 200 tourists, Quintana Roo’s governor Roberto Borge said.
On Tuesday there were around 80,000 tourists in the state. Most were foreigners, staying at hotels in Cancun and other resorts like Playa del Carmen and the island of Cozumel.
Some cruises changed course to avoid Yucatan.
The sixth hurricane in the 2011 Atlantic season, Rina was located about 140 miles south southeast of Cozumel Island at 10 p.m. CDT/2100 GMT on Wednesday, and was moving west northwest at 6 mph.
The hurricane could dump 6 to 10 inches of rain over the eastern Yucatan peninsula, and some streets in the main tourist zone were already flooding on Wednesday.
A huge storm surge is also possible, raising tide levels as much as 4 feet above normal along the coast.
The head of Mexico’s West Coast National Marine Park, Jaime Gonzalez, said the hurricane would likely erode of Cancun’s famous white-sand beaches, which have been rebuilt twice since Wilma stripped away nearly 60 percent of the city’s sand.
Companies that run marine parks around Cancun moved more than two dozen dolphins, some pregnant, from areas in the hurricane’s path to safer sites farther inland.
Rina spared Central America, where rain that started on October 12 have hit more than 1 million people, destroying crops and damaging roads in the region, the United Nations said.
Additional reporting by Anahi Rama; writing by Dave Graham and Mica Rosenberg; editing by Xavier Briand and Jackie Frank