Hurricane Dean went through the Yucatan peninsula Tuesday, toppling trees, power lines and houses. Glitzy resorts on the Mayan Riviera were spared, but vulnerable Mayan villages realized the full fury.
President Felipe Calderon said no deaths were immediately reported in Mexico, after Dean killed 13 people in the Caribbean. But driving rain, poor communications and impassable roads made it difficult to determine how isolated Mayan communities fared in the sparsely populated jungle where Dean made landfall as a ferocious Category 5 hurricane.
Dean weakened over land but remained a huge Category 1 hurricane as its eye approached the Bay of Campeche, home to more than 100 oil platforms and three major oil exporting ports. It was expected to intensify over water, then slam into the mainland Wednesday afternoon with renewed force near Laguna Verde, Mexico's only nuclear power plant.
"We often see that when a storm weakens, people let down their guard completely. You shouldn't do that," said Jamie Rhome at the U.S. National Hurricane Center. "This storm probably won't become a Category 5 again, but it will still be powerful."
By 1800 GMT (2 p.m. EDT), Dean's eye was 75 kilometers (45 miles) south-southeast of Campeche, moving west at 30 kph (18 mph), the National Hurricane Center said.
While 50,000 tourists were safely evacuated from resorts on the Yucatan peninsula, many poor Indians closer to the storm's direct path refused military orders to leave their homes, according to Gen. Alfonso Garcia, who was running shelters in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of the eye's path.
Troops evacuated more than 250 small communities, and 8,000 people took refuge in 500 shelters, said Jorge Acevedo, a Quintana Roo state spokesman. Others turned away soldiers with machetes and refused to leave, but some of them changed their minds when the winds and rain intensified, he said.
Little was known about the thousands who rode out the storm in low-lying communities of stick huts or who the handful who hid from soldiers evacuating smaller resorts like Majahual, where Dean made landfall with 265 kph (165 mph) winds and gusts of 325 kph (200 mph) - faster than the takeoff speed of many passenger jets.
Mexican officials said they were making slow progress down nearly impassable roads to reach these places. In less isolated towns, people emerged to survey toppled trees and downed power lines criss-crossing flooded streets.
"If only the government would lend us a hand," said Georgina Hernandez, 59, whose three children all lost their homes in the town of Los Limones.
Dean's path takes it directly through the Cantarell oil field, Mexico's most productive. The entire field's operations were shut down just ahead of the storm, reducing daily production by 2.7 million barrels of oil and 2.6 billion cubic feet of natural gas.
Insured losses from the storm are likely to range between US$750 million and US$1.5 billion (550 million EUR and 1.1 billion EUR), according to Risk Management Solutions, which calculates hurricane damage for the insurance industry. Most of that came in Jamaica, which said Tuesday it was postponing Aug. 27 general elections to survey the damage.
Dean hit Mexico early Tuesday along a sparsely populated coastline, well to the south of major resorts. The brunt of the storm hit the state capital of Chetumal, where residents spent a harrowing night with windows shattering and heavy water tanks flying off rooftops. Sirens wailed for hours as the storm battered the city, hurling billboards down streets. The Federal Electricity Commission said 90,000 customers remained without power by midday.
Electricity was also out to most of Belize, where no deaths or major injuries were reported. Just south of the Mexican border in Corozal, Dean flipped a residential trailer, blew roofs from homes and flooded streets.
The storm was expected to hit land again Wednesday afternoon at the mouth of the Nautla river in Veracruz state. That's 650 kilometers (400 miles) south of Texas, where only heavy surf was expected. The space shuttle Endeavour landed a day early Tuesday because of the threat NASA had once feared Dean would pose to Mission Control in Houston.
Just north of Nautla is a strip of resorts known as the Emerald Coast, and seven more oil platforms are just offshore. Laguna Verde, Mexico's only nuclear power plant, is only 55 kilometers (35 miles) to the south, and hundreds of buses stood by to evacuate workers if necessary.
Calderon cut short a trip to Canada so he could travel to the hardest-hit areas. U.S. President George W. Bush, standing by his side at a summit in Montebello, offered U.S. aid.
"We stand ready to help," Bush said. "The American people care a lot about the human condition in our neighborhood, and when we see human suffering we want to do what we can."
Dean was the third-most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall since record keeping began in the 1850s. It had a minimum central pressure of 906 millibars, the third-lowest at landfall after the 1935 Labor Day hurricane in the Florida Keys and Hurricane Gilbert, which hit Cancun in 1988.
"A very low pressure indicates a very strong storm," said meteorologist Rebecca Waddington.
The deadliest 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.
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