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Hurricane Slams Yucatan Coast : 179-M.P.H. Winds Buffet Mexico Peninsula; Storm Heads for Texas

Times Staff Writer

Hurricane Gilbert, the most powerful storm in the recorded history of the Western Hemisphere, slammed into coastal resorts and Mayan ruins on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula with 179-m.p.h. winds and then turned toward the coast of Texas.

Tens of thousands of tourists and residents took refuge in public shelters in beach communities such as Cozumel Island and Cancun, where gusts up to 218 m.p.h. and dense white sheets of rain reportedly uprooted trees and small houses and caused heavy flooding.

“The doors and windows were shaking . . . parts of trees were flying by. It rained buckets of water,” said cameraman Arturo Gonzalez, who rode out the storm with about 300 American tourists at an army barracks at the entrance to Cancun.

‘Didn’t Want to Leave’

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Before the hurricane hit, the army had to persuade people to evacuate, Gonzalez said later from the inland city of Valladolid. “They didn’t know what to do. Many people didn’t want to leave their houses--they didn’t believe it would be so bad.”

There were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries in the Yucatan, but radio communication with the area was sporadic. Military radios and ham radio operators were able to make only occasional contact. Telephone lines, electricity and water service were cut in the coastal communities.

In Cancun, roaring, 18-foot waves battered hotels along the coast, and widespread flooding was reported throughout the resort. Streets were clogged with fallen trees and debris, officials said, and 35,000 people were evacuated from the beaches into the center of the city, about 6 miles away.

Bryant Salter, the U.S. consul in Merida, the capital of Yucatan, said most of the tourists in Cancun and Cozumel are American, but he had no estimates on how many were there when the storm hit.

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Evacuated tourists and residents were being housed in schools, churches and military installations.

Military and civilian teams evacuated another 16,000 people from the upper Yucatan coast between Puerto Progreso and Rio Lagartos, Jose Pereira, a spokesman for the Yucatan governor’s office, said.

“The heaviest damage is in Cancun, then Isla Mujeres and Cozumel,” presidential spokesman Ricardo Ampudia said in Mexico City. “Some buildings are destroyed. Many smaller buildings were carried away by the winds.”

“The majority of the cabanas and wooden houses where poor people live are destroyed,” Gonzalez, the cameraman, said in describing the storm’s aftermath in Cancun. “People are walking back and forth, looking at the damage. Cattle are lost and looking for cover along the highway. Downtown, the streets are covered with trees . . . some houses fell on top of cars.”

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‘Whole Highway Obstructed’

In making his way from Cancun to Valladolid, he said, he had to stop to move trees, telephone poles and electric wires out of the road. “The whole highway is obstructed.”

Gilbert hit the Mexican coastline about 9 a.m. local time after killing at least 24 people and causing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of damage in the Caribbean. In Jamaica, an estimated 500,000 people--almost one-fourth of the population--were reportedly homeless after the storm swept the nation Monday.

Next, the hurricane is expected to sweep across the Gulf of Mexico and take aim at Texas, with landfall expected Friday night or early Saturday.

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“We’ve got a very sick feeling,” said William Tomkins, emergency management coordinator for Galveston County, Tex. “This thing has all the characteristics of a textbook kind of terrible storm.”

Forecasters were predicting the hurricane could cause “catastrophic damage” if the U.S. Gulf Coast sustained a direct hit.

‘Not Going Away’

“It has everything going for it, so it’s not going to go away,” Bob Sheets, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said.

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In Houston, local grocery stores were laying in massive supplies of batteries, bottled water, masking tape, candles and canned goods. According to store managers, those items as well as plywood for boarding up windows, kerosene lamps, flashlights and portable TVs and radios were selling quickly.

The Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center and all major hospitals in the area have asked for extra blood donations during the next 48 hours. Although Houston Mayor Kathy Whitmire has not declared emergency status in the city, all departments are obtaining supplies of gasoline, emergency generators and lights and batteries.

Other plans included closing off the downtown area to prevent injury from flying glass or looting, which occurred during Hurricane Alicia in 1983.

Gusts Up to 218 M.P.H.

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At the National Hurricane Center and the Mexican National Weather Service, forecasters said the maximum sustained winds Wednesday blew at 179 m.p.h., with gusts of up to 218 m.p.h. The winds lessened to about 160 m.p.h. as the storm’s center hit the Mexican mainland, but experts predicted the winds would pick up speed once they passed over the warm waters of the gulf.

The hurricane center called Gilbert the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere.

Officials in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo said the hurricane hit Cozumel first, then reached Cancun about an hour later.

Airports were closed at Cancun, Cozumel, Merida and Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo on the Yucatan Peninsula. Gina Dominguez, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office in Chetumal, said the storm also hit the communities of Playa del Carmen and Puerto Morelos, as well as the Mayan ruins of Tulum.

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“The hurricane just parked over the area,” she said.

Heavy rains also were dumped on the ruined ancient Mayan city of Mayapan, 35 miles southeast of Merida, where archeologists have uncovered about 3,600 buildings.

Peninsula Cut Off

“The entire peninsula is cut off from communications and we haven’t yet received reports of deaths and injuries, but we are preparing for the worst,” Sgt. Mario Vallardes of the Yucatan state police told United Press International.

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State officials moved an emergency brigade with food, heavy equipment and medical personnel to Felipe Carrillo Port, about 150 miles south of Cancun, to enter once the roads are clear.

Despite the hurricane’s ferocity, not everyone in its path had been concerned.

Judith Hernandez of Isla Mujeres off Cancun, told United Press International that most of her neighbors responded very casually to the impending storm.

Last Ferry Out

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“We began buying food and people asked us if we were crazy. When the wind started blowing roofs off, we caught the last ferry out, but the boat was nearly empty because no one wanted to leave,” she said.

Meanwhile, in Jamaica at least 19 people were killed in the deluge Monday, and Jamaican Embassy officials in Washington estimated the damage at $300 million. However, Prime Minister Edward Seaga said Wednesday night that damage totaled $8 billion.

Thousands remained in rescue centers in the wake of torrential rains, which Seaga called the worst disaster in Jamaican history. Telephone service was cut off, and airports were closed. Although some radio stations were broadcasting, damaged antennas and transmitters limited their range.

In the 750,000-population capital of Kingston, trees, roofs and telephone poles littered the streets.

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Aid to Jamaica

The British government announced Wednesday that it was sending $835,000 worth of emergency supplies to Jamaica. The Canadian government said it will raise emergency aid to Jamaica to $1 million--a $600,000 increase over the current level.

Five deaths were reported in the nearby Dominican Republic as a result of the storm Sunday.

In the Cayman Islands, the hurricane tore the roofs off of at least two buildings and damaged numerous other structures Tuesday, but police said damage was less than expected. There were no reports of storm-related deaths in the islands, which have a population of 20,000.

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The islands’ residents “got on their knees and said ‘thank you,’ ” wire services quoted local journalist Carol Winker as saying.

Gilbert was a Category 5, the classification given to storms with winds greater than 155 m.p.h., barometric pressure of less than 27.17 inches and a storm surge--a dome of water that follows the hurricane’s “eye"--higher than 18 feet.

Category 5 Storms

Only two other Category 5 storms have occurred in the Western Hemisphere since weather officials began keeping records. On Sept. 2, 1935, the “Labor Day hurricane,” as it was known, lashed the Florida Keys with 200-m.p.h. winds and 20-foot tides, killing 408 people and causing $46 million in damage.

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And on Aug. 17-20, 1969, Hurricane Camille, packing a similar force, struck Mississippi, West Virginia and Virginia, with a loss of 256 lives and $1.4 billion in damage.

But the deadliest storm in U.S. history was a Category 4 hurricane that struck Galveston on Sept. 8-9, 1900, killing more than 6,000 people.

Category 4 storms bear winds from 131 to 155 m.p.h., a surge of 13 to 18 feet and barometric pressure of 27.17 to 27.90.

Times staff researcher Rhona Schwartz contributed to this story from Houston.

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