Hurricane Gilbert battered the resorts of the Yucatan Peninsula on Wednesday with 175 mph winds and torrential rains. Thousands of people fled coastal areas for shelters inland.
"The wind was blowing out windows everywhere" in Cancun, an official said of the resort where thousands of Americans vacation each year.Residents along the gulf coast of Texas, 560 miles to the north, stockpiled food and supplies and prepared to evacuate. The hurricane, one of the strongest in history, is "extremely dangerous," the U.S. National Weather Service said.
Oil companies evacuated thousands of workers from rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, according to reports from New Orleans.
Gilbert, which has killed at least 11 people, moved over the island of Cozumel at 10 a.m. EDT, said Jose Pereira, a spokesman for the governor's office in Merida, capital of Yucatan state.
Pereira, who spoke by telephone from Mexico City, said heavy rain was falling over the peninsula and communications with Cancun and Cozumel were out. Cancun is 240 miles east of Merida. Cozumel is 12 miles off the Yucatan coast.
Military and civilian teams evacuated more than 16,000 people from coastal areas on the upper Yucatan coast between Puerto Progreso to Rio Lagartos, Pereira said. Most are in shelters in inland towns, he said.
"Many people were reluctant to leave their homes," Pereira said. "They had to be convinced of the seriousness of the threat."
Officials in Merida last spoke with people in Cancun early Wednesday before the center of the storm hit.
"Electricity is down," Pereira said. "We talked to them early in the morning, and they said it was impressive _ all dark. The people were afraid. The wind was blowing out windows everywhere." Heavy rains began in Merida about 6 a.m. EDT.
The National Weather Service in Miami said the eye of the storm was near Cozumel at 9 a.m. EDT. Gilbert was reported at latitude 20.4 north and longitude 86.6 west moving west northwest at 15 mph.
Gilbert pounded the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and the low-lying Cayman Islands Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. At least 11 people were reported killed, and at least 60,000 were left homeless in Jamaica. Rescue teams worked desperately to restore utilities and communications in the shattered areas.
In a telephone call early Wednesday, receptionist Pablo Torres of the Carril-los Hotel in Cancun said about 150 people, most of them tourists, were crowded in the lobby on sofas and chairs.
"We are full, and there is not one tourist now in the beach hotel zone," he said. "The sound of the wind outside is horrible. You couldn't leave even if you wanted to."
He said the winds felled utility poles and trees and that sheets of rain were hitting the city.
Jennie Valdez, a representative of the U.S. Consul, said she did not know how many tourists were in Cancun but that government figures estimate between 40,000 and 65,000 a month. Cancun has a population of about 100,000 to 150,000, she said.
High winds also were reported in Valladolid, a city of 80,000 located 80 miles southwest of Cancun, said Jose Joaquin Martil, local Red Cross president.
Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga said late Tuesday that at least six people were killed, and an estimated 60,000 were left homeless in "the worst natural disaster in the modern history of Jamaica."
Civil defense officials in the Dominican Republic, sideswiped Sunday by the storm, reported five people were known dead.