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As Hurricane Dean nears Mexico, thousands flee

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Hurricane Dean gained strength in the Caribbean today and bore down on the Yucatan Peninsula and the resorts of the Mayan Riviera, where tens of thousands of residents and tourists were forced to seek shelter.

The eye of the storm, packing 140 mph winds, was expected to hit a sparsely populated stretch of the Yucatan beaches before dawn Tuesday, sparing Cancun its wrath, according to Mexican officials and the U.S. National Hurricane Center. The storm was becoming so fierce that it could reach Category 5 status.

At the beach bungalows about 80 miles south of Cancun, hundreds of people fled, many heading for the relative safety of Tulum city. About 3,000 residents and tourists were expected to seek shelter at refugee centers set up at schools, hotels and other buildings.

Bernardo Cruz, a lobster fisherman, was one of 600 people to evacuate the town of Punta Allen, a fishing hamlet where all that remained was a small contingent of Mexican sailors to guard a lighthouse.

"No one is left there, just the sailors who are going to leave at the very last moment," Cruz said as he drove to Tulum this afternoon.

The largest city threatened by the approaching storm was Chetumal, home to 137,000 people and the capital of Quintana Roo state, which includes Cancun, Cozumel and other resorts.

"We are begging people to leave their homes and go to one of our shelters," said Cora Amalia Castilla, the mayor of Chetumal. "All we are asking is that this hurricane take pity on us."

Quintana Roo state officials said 60,000 tourists had been evacuated or left the region during what is traditionally one of the busiest weeks of the tourist season.

Hurricane Dean slammed into Jamaica's southern shore Sunday evening, ripping roofs from buildings, flattening trees and flooding southern coastal areas.

Twelve deaths were reported by the Associated Press as the storm worked it way across the Caribbean.

Forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center said Dean may be upgraded to Category 5 -- the most powerful, with sustained winds stronger than 155 mph -- by the time it hits Mexico.

If Dean stays on its current track, chances are slim it will directly hit the United States. As a precaution, President Bush has issued an emergency declaration to federal and state disaster agencies.

There has not been a Category 5 Atlantic hurricane since 2005, when four -- a record -- were reported. One of those was Katrina, which unleashed havoc on the U.S. Gulf Coast that September, including devastating floods in New Orleans.

Although Dean's eye passed 40 miles south of Kingston, Jamaica's capital, such was its force and size that parts of the coast were lashed with 115-mph winds.

Jamaica's government warned that up to 20 inches of rainfall could bring flash floods. Most of the country was without power Sunday evening. As night fell, normally buzzing Kingston was transformed into a ghost town. The police commissioner had declared a curfew in major cities to limit the possibility of looting.

Jamaican soldiers patrolled Kingston and other cities. Jamaica has not experienced a direct hit from a hurricane since Gilbert in 1988. That Category 3 storm claimed more than 30 lives and destroyed many properties.

Large numbers of tourists were stranded in Jamaica because the island closed its airports late Saturday.

Oil companies, including Shell and Mexico's state-owned Pemex, were evacuating thousands of employees at drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Jamaicans rushed to stores Sunday before the storm hit to stock up on water and food. Citizens will be watching how the government performs during and after the storm, as elections are to be held on Aug. 27.

Before the emergency shopping, many Kingston residents spent most of the day watching the waves beating against the sea walls.

One man said he enjoys the sight. "It's beautiful to see the waves that high. You do not see this every day," he said.

Cecilia Sanchez of the Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report, as did staff writer Chris Kraul from Caracas, Venezuela. A Times special correspondent in Kingston also contributed.

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