TULUM, Mexico (AP) -- Hurricane Dean strengthened into a
monstrous Category 5 storm Monday night as its outter bands of wind
and rain slammed the coasts of Mexico and Belize. Thousands of
tourists fled the beaches of the Mayan Riviera as it roared toward
the ancient ruins and modern oil installations of the Yucatan
Mexico's state oil company, Petroleos de Mexico, said it was
evacuating all of its more than 18,000 offshore workers in the
southern Gulf of Mexico, which includes the giant Cantarell oil
field. Dozens of historically significant Mayan sites also were
Dean -- which has killed at least 12 people across the Caribbean
-- quickly picked up strength after brushing Jamaica and the Cayman
By 11 p.m. EDT, Dean had sustained winds of 160 mph and was
centered about 150 miles east of Chetumal, where it was projected
to make landfall early Tuesday morning, according to the U.S.
National Hurricane Center said. Chetumal is about 120 miles south
Category 5 storms -- capable of catastrophic damage -- are
extremely rare -- only three have hit the U.S. since record-keeping
Cancun seemed likely to be spared a direct hit, but visitors
abandoned its swank hotels to swarm outbound flights. Officials
evacuated more rustic lodgings farther south.
Eric Morovich of Orange County, Calif., waited outside Cancun's
airport after trying unsuccessfully to book a ferry, rent a boat
and charter an airplane. "The next option is swimming, I guess,"
A hurricane warning was in affect from Cancun all the way south
through Belize. All hospitals were closed in Belize City, the
country's biggest, and authorities urged residents to leave, saying
Dean is too strong for their shelters. Meteorologists said a storm
surge of 12 to 18 feet was possible at the storm's center.
The storm was expected to slash across the Yucatan and emerge in
the Gulf of Campeche, where Petroleos de Mexico decided Monday to
shut down production on the offshore rigs that extract most of the
President Felipe Calderon said he would cut short a trip to
Canada where he is meeting with President Bush and Canadian Prime
Minister Stephen Harper.
"Given (the hurricane's) progression and dangerousness, I have
decided to return to Mexico soon," Calderon said in Ottawa. "I'll
personally oversee the aid effort in case of a disaster."
Shutting the 407 oil wells in the Campeche Sound will result in
a production loss of 2.7 million barrels of oil and 2.6 billion
cubic feet of natural gas a day, Pemex said. Of that, about 1.7
million barrels of oil a day is exported from three Gulf ports,
where Pemex was loading the final tankers before shutting them as
Central Mexico was next on the storm's path, though the outer
bands were likely to bring rain, flooding and gusty winds to south
Texas, already saturated after an unusually rainy summer.
At the southern tip of Texas, officials urged residents to
evacuate ahead of the storm. "Our mission is very simple. It's to
get people out of the kill zone, to get people out of the danger
area, which is the coastline of Texas," said Johnny Cavazos,
Cameron County's chief emergency director.
Officials in the resort town of South Padre Island distributed
sandbags after a state of emergency was declared.
In Mexico, the Quintana Roo state government said about
two-thirds of the 60,000 tourists in the Cancun area had left. Some
camped overnight at the city's airport to ensure a flight out. Many
others were turned away.
"I'm just hoping that we get out in time. We've got two little
kids back in the States," Morovich said. But the heavyset man
wasn't too worried about survival, saying: "It would take at least
a Category 5 to blow me away."
Workers hammered plywood over the windows of hotels along the
tourist strip, where the skyline is still marked with cranes used
to repair the damage of Hurricane Wilma. That storm caused $3
billion in losses in 2005.
Dean could be even stronger than Wilma, which stalled over
Cancun and pummeled it for a day. The fast-moving Dean was passing
farther south, and was likely to deliver a brief but powerful punch
to Mexico's Maya heartland.
That area stretches from Tulum south to the growing beach resort
at Mahahual, where authorities evacuated hundreds of tourists on
Monday. Between the two lies the 2.5 million-acre Sian Kaan nature
reserve, with a 1,200-year-old network of Mayan canals.
Government anthropologists said they were preparing 13
archaeological sites for the storm, pruning trees and removing
signs and vegetation that strong winds could turn into damaging
Cancun still could face tropical-storm-force winds -- forecast to
extend over an area of about 75,000 square miles, about the size of
Nebraska or South Dakota.
"We're leaving. You don't play around with nature," fisherman
Maclovio Manuel Kanul said, pulling equipment from his beachfront
fishing shack near Cancun. "We still haven't been able to recover
from Wilma, and now this is coming."
Belize, just south of Mexico, evacuated 6,000 people from the
country's main tourist resort, San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, and 500
or so from nearby Caye Caulker, said national emergency coordinator
James Jan Mohammed. People were urged to leave low-lying areas.
Authorities evacuated Belize City's three hospitals and were
moving high-risk patients to the inland capital, Belmopan, founded
after 1961's Hurricane Hattie devastated Belize City. Belize City
Mayor Zenaida Moya urged people to leave, saying shelters aren't
strong enough to withstand a storm of Dean's size.
Dean, the first hurricane of the Atlantic season, raked Jamaica
and the Cayman Islands on Sunday, but both escaped the full brunt
of the storm.
In Jamaica, the storm uprooted trees, flooded roads and
collapsed some buildings. Downed utility poles left thousands
without electricity or telephone service. Police said two men were
killed: one when his house collapsed and another struck by flying
Haitian officials on Monday reported two more deaths from the
storm, raising the storm's death toll in the Caribbean to at least
The worst storm to hit Latin America in modern times was 1998's
Hurricane Mitch, which killed nearly 11,000 people and left more
than 8,000 missing, most in Honduras and Nicaragua.