Emily blows on to Mexico

Hurricane Emily has passed the Cayman Islands and a massive evacuation of tourists in Cancun Mexico was under way Sunday, as hundreds of buses were dispatched to move tens of thousands out of the path of Hurricane Emily.

With the Category 4 storm expected to strike the Yucatan peninsula Sunday night, about 500 buses were ordered to move 30,000 tourists in Cancun to temporary shelters, while 70,000 to 80,000 people were being evacuated statewide.

Hundreds of tourists clutching pillows waded out of hotels in the twilight hours Sunday morning, waiting at curbs in a light drizzle to be loaded aboard buses.

“It’s a little scary because it’s happening in Mexico,” said Brittney Denhart, 23, a recent college graduate from San Diego. “If it was on U.S. soil, it would be a little more reassuring. We don’t know what the level of planning is.”

Ben Smith, 16, student from Blackpool, England, said he and his friends were excited about the storm and stayed up all night Saturday playing cards.

“I want to be able to tell my grandkids I lived through a hurricane,” he said.

Tourism Department and hotel association officials had said tourists would be relocated to ballrooms and convention centers in larger, well-protected hotels, but the first wave of evacuees was ferried to gymnasiums and government schools.

Hundreds of mostly foreign tourists lay shoulder-to-shoulder on thin foam pads in a sweltering gymnasium near the center of Cancun. They were given free bottled water and sandwiches, but many gasped when a hard rain rattled the hard metal roof of the building. Some asked how long they would have to stay in the confines.

“It’s hot in here,” said Beth McGhee, 46, a tourist from Independence, Missouri. “We feel like we’ve been kept in the dark until this morning. But we’re safe, and that’s what’s important.”

Along the narrow spit of land that holds most of Cancun’s palatial hotels, workers scrambled to board up businesses and remove traffic lights that otherwise could becoming wind-borne projectiles.

Cancun’s grim-faced mayor, Francisco Alor, said the city was preparing for a direct hit by Emily.

“This hurricane is coming with same force as Gilbert,” he said in reference to a notorious 1988 hurricane that killed 300 people in Mexico and the Caribbean.

The last time Cancun faced a mass evacuation was 1988, when the city and surrounding resort areas were still fairly new and had only about 8,000 hotel rooms; that number has since grown to over 50,000.

On the island of Cozumel, just south of Cancun, tourists in beach-side hotels were moved to accommodations closer to the center of the island, which lies almost directly in the hurricane’s projected path.

Local residents also were expected to flee their homes to some of about 170 schools and community centers. Authorities said they had enough food ready to feed 60,000 to 70,000 people.

Tourists streamed out of the Cancun airport Saturday, and the terminal could close Sunday.

Mexico also launched a large-scale evacuation of offshore oil platforms, ordering 15,000 workers off oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and leaving less than a thousand attendants behind. State-owned oil company Petroleos Mexicanos said the move included closing 63 wells and halting the production of 480,000 barrels of oil per day.

Emily is expected to cross over the Yucatan peninsula before passing over the Gulf and hitting Mexico again – this time near the U.S. border – later in the week.

On its passage through the Caribbean, Emily’s winds ravaged hundreds of homes on the island of Grenada and killed at least one man whose home was buried under a landslide. Torrential rains drenched the south coast of Jamaica and washed away at least three houses.

On Sunday morning, Emily was about 105 miles south-southeast of Grand Cayman and moving toward the Yucatan peninsula at about 20 mph, with winds of about 150 mph.

Authorities had evacuated some tourists from the mainland resorts of Tulum and Playa de Carmen, also south of Cancun, in some cases sending them as far away as Valladolid, a Yucatan city 100 miles inland.

About 1,800 people were evacuated from the islands of Contoy and Holbox, just off the coast.

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