Hurricane Gilbert's leading edge lashed the coast and its 120- mph winds swirled toward landfall Friday night, as officials in the Caribbean and Mexico tallied billions in damage from the giant storm blamed for at least 58 deaths.
Meanwhile, a local travel company is awaiting an all-clear signal from Mexico as it prepares to send a jet into the Cancun area of Mexico to pick up 92 Utahns stranded by the hurricane.A spokesman for trip sponsors Morris Air Service said a Lear jet with four people on board and ham radio equipment was dispatched to Merida, Mexico, at 1 a.m. Friday, and the company is waiting to hear from them before sending a jet to pick up the stranded travel group.
The spokesman said about 70 of the 92 travelers elected to stay at a meeting house of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the storm. Morris officials said the others stayed elsewhere in Cancun. The latest report from LDS officials is that the building was undamaged by the hurricane.
The spokesman said the advance group is scheduled to contact LDS Church emergency services in Salt Lake City by radio as soon as it is clear to send a commercial plane into the area.
Meanwhile, thousands of residents along Texas' 370-mile coast, many evacuated to higher ground after piling sandbags in the doorways of their homes and boarding up windows, huddled in shelters and waited for the news:
When and where would Gilbert hit?
"We are going to sit and wait and pray for the best," said Larry Brown, director of transportation for Brownsville, where officials estimated that as much as one-fourth of the city of 110,000 could end up in emergency shelters.
Port Isabel, a city of about 5,000 just east of Brownsville, had turned into a virtual ghost town by Thursday evening.
"It sounds facetious, but people can stay as long as we can fingerprint them so we can identify them later," said South Padre Mayor Bob Pinkerton Jr.
To the north in Houston, NASA's Johnson Space Center all but shut down Thursday, with most of its 9,000 employees sent home to prepare for Gilbert.
And in south Louisiana, 25,000 people fled the most vulnerable villages despite being out of the high-danger area.
Gilbert's sustained winds have died down from 175 mph in the Caribbean to 120 mph after it passed over Yucatan on Wednesday. Its ranking was lowered from Category 5 _ the most fierce - to a Category 3.
The storm's earlier landfalls left at least 26 people dead in Jamaica, five in the Dominican Republic and 10 in Haiti.
An estimated 25,000 people evacuated low-lying villages in southern Louisiana, and officials said they wouldn't let people return home until they were sure Gilbert had run ashore elsewhere. "We cannot afford a chance that it might go back into the gulf, away from the shoreline," said Plaquemines Parish Civil Defense Director Carol Becnel.