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200-M.P.H. Winds Batter Mexico Resorts; U.S. Waits : Tex. Braces for Worst on Friday

From Reuters

Gilbert, the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere, slammed into Mexico’s resort island of Cozumel and the Yucatan Peninsula, lashing the area with winds of up to 200 m.p.h. today and heading for a feared rendezvous with the Texas coastline.

Cozumel’s luxurious beachfront hotels were evacuated and up to 95,000 residents of the Yucatan fled inland before the onslaught of Gilbert, which was blamed for at least 12 deaths on its three-day trek across the Caribbean.

The army was patrolling the streets of Cozumel and the nearby resort of Cancun, and there were no immediate reports of casualties or major damage.

Advancing at 15 M.P.H.

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At midday, Gilbert was pinpointed about 150 miles east of Merida, the Yucatan’s principal city, and was crossing the peninsula’s northeastern tip, churning west-north-west at 15 m.p.h. on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Gilbert’s sustained winds had weakened from 175 m.p.h. to 160 m.p.h., with occasional gusts clocked at nearly 200 m.p.h., but forecasters said it could strengthen again over the warm waters of the Gulf.

Forecaster Ray Biedinger of the National Hurricane Center in Miami said Gilbert could crash ashore on the Texas coast as early as Friday if it holds its present course.

“This is an extremely dangerous hurricane, and the entire U.S. Gulf coast better beware of it,” he said.

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The Pentagon today agreed to dispatch active-duty military personnel and equipment from Ft. Hood in Killeen, Tex., and possibly from Ft. Bliss in El Paso to assist the National Guard in evacuations along the Texas coast. A “crisis action center” is being set up in Washington to coordinate the effort. (Forecasters in Southern California said Gilbert is not expected to affect local weather.)

Some Texas coastal residents were already bracing for Gilbert’s fury, boarding up windows and emptying store shelves of batteries, bottled water and other emergency goods.

For the second time in less than a week, U.S. oil companies evacuated thousands of workers from rigs off Texas and Louisiana in the face of the approaching storm. Hurricane Florence sent rig workers fleeing to shore last Friday before it fizzled on the Louisiana coast.

Gilbert was so powerful that it was sending shock waves through the U.S. oil and gas markets, pushing prices up on fears that the hurricane would temporarily shut down some Gulf coast refineries.

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Five Killed in Jamaica

At least five people were killed when Gilbert slashed through Jamaica on Monday, forcing thousands to evacuate, destroying homes, knocking out all public utilities and causing widespread flooding.

The Jamaican Embassy in Washington said at least 500,000 people--almost one-fourth of the island’s population--were left homeless by the storm and estimated damage at $300 million.

Authorities imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the Kingston area to combat widespread looting of homes and businesses, according to Jamaican radio reports monitored in Barbados.

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Seven hurricane-related deaths were reported in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

In the Cayman Islands, police Supt. Neville Smith said Gilbert caused heavy flooding, tore the roofs off at least two buildings, damaged other structures and knocked out electricity to most of the island when it plowed through on Tuesday.

But he said the damage was much less than expected. There were no reports of deaths, and only half a dozen minor injuries were reported among the Caymans’ population of 20,000, he said.

Gilbert grew into the most powerful hurricane of the century late on Tuesday.

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