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Hurricane Lashes Mexico, Spins Off Twisters in Texas

Hurricane Gilbert, a bully to the end, ducked the richer, readier Texas Gulf Coast and thundered ashore Friday at Temaxcal, a poor village 25 miles north of La Pesca, a town of humble fishermen on the northeastern shore of Mexico. He hurled blinding rain and 120 m.p.h. winds.

He spit tornadoes into both Mexico and the United States as he flew.

White rain, swirling in chaos, pounded waterfront communities, home to hundreds of people, between La Pesca and Matamoros, just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Tex. Crashing waves smacked into the coast. Residents were evacuated. Despite severe damage, there were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries.

Brownsville Hard Hit

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But the hurricane spun off two dozen tornadoes in the Brownsville area. The tornadoes smashed homes, overturned cars and mobile homes and injured several persons. The roof was ripped from several of the units at a Brownsville self-storage warehouse. Nearby, in Harlingen, Tex., the police said windows were shattered in 20 to 30 cars.

The eye of the hurricane hit Temaxcal at 4:35 p.m. CDT. It moved at 12 m.p.h. toward the west-northwest. The National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Fla., said the hurricane would march up the Mexican side of the Rio Grande Valley, then turn northward into Texas and ultimately into Oklahoma, dissipating every mile of the way.

The eye, 25 miles wide, would become less discernible as the hurricane moved over land, said Jesse Moore, a spokesman for the hurricane center. “We’ll still have an organized storm system,” he declared. “But we do know that it won’t move back over water, so it should weaken.”

Meteorologists credited a high pressure system stretching across the southern United States with protecting the American coast.

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The hurricane was born a bully. He came to life in the Caribbean, then spent his early days pounding the poor island nations of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and the Caymans. He crossed Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula with a force that made him the most powerful storm in the history of the Western Hemisphere.

In his wake, he left 66 dead, including 17 in the Yucatan. He destroyed a half million homes and caused billions of dollars worth of damage. Little of it affected the Gulf Coast of Texas, where he was expected to strike the United States, and where people better able to survive and rebuild boarded up their homes and fled.

Even in Mexico, the storm was unfair. In Matamoros, the wealthier people could afford to move inland,some into the United States, said Father Ruperto Ayala, pastor of Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church.

The most exposed, he said, were in the city’s slums.

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The eye of the hurricane passed over Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz, two other small Mexican villages near La Pesca, which has a population of about 3,500, said Mark Zimmer, a meteorologist at the hurricane center.

“We presume,” he said, that the Mexican villages “are getting a good pounding.”

Jesus Angel Gonzalez, a physician with the Red Cross in Ciudad Victoria, capital of the state of Tamaulipas, where the villages are located, said he had gotten scattered reports from the area, including the towns of San Fernando and Soto La Marina. They told of a number of flattened homes.

People were trapped inside, beneath the fallen walls, Gonzalez said.

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“It was ugly--lots of water and wind,” he said. “Animals were carried away, drowned and killed.”

Gonzalez feared there would be casualties.

Many Wanted to Stay

“Many people didn’t want to leave their houses in Soto La Marina because they thought the hurricane would hit farther north,” he said. “Soto La Marina has 15,000 residents, and we didn’t have the resources to evacuate that many people.”

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In fact, the doctor said, a number of people evacuated from La Pesca were taken to Soto La Marina and San Fernando--into the fury of the storm.

He said San Fernando has at least 35,000 residents.

Mexican army headquarters at Ciudad Victoria lost contact with Soto La Marina and the La Pesca area at about 3 p.m., according to Lt. Francisco Pedrote. But he was more hopeful. “We knew this was coming,” he said, “and we evacuated (La Pesca).” He thought that people in the La Pesca area numbered only 20 or 30 when the storm hit.

In Mexican radio reports monitored in Texas, according to the Reuter news service, one Mexican official was heard saying that La Pesca “looks like it was flattened with a steamroller.”

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There was no communication with the town of Temaxcal, halfway between La Pesca and San Fernando. Julio Garza, an official with the Mexican highway police, said Temaxcal was in the eye of the storm.

Nor was there any word from the village of La Carbonera. Garza said it, too, was in the hurricane’s path.

Gilbert began the day a reluctant giant.

Circles Offshore

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At dawn, he circled offshore, ever closer to land, and sent rain in whirling sheets into the streets of Matamoros. Birds turned in the air.

Wind pounded walls and windows as residents waded knee-deep through the water.

At the Matamoros City Hall, red, white and green decorations marked Independence Day. But there was no celebration. The decorations were abandoned.

So were plans for a parade.

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Angel Rojo, 33, a construction worker, fled from his wooden house in a poor neighborhood called Colonia Popular. With his wife and five children, he went to a cathedral called Sagrario del Refugio. Already it held too many people and too little air. His children were irritable. They sensed his nervousness.

“I am afraid,” said Marta, 25, his wife.

All around them, men and women fanned themselves with torn pieces of cardboard.

There were about 200 people, and they filled the church. Men took off their shirts. The air was fetid, sour-smelling. Clothing and shoes littered the aisles. The people sat on metal folding chairs and wooden benches. Some lay on blankets which they had spread, here and there, on the concrete floor.

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Nearby sat Maria Leonre Saldierna, 52, with her four children, two grandchildren and a daughter-in-law. The youngsters moved restlessly. Sometimes they whined. Her daughter-in-law spooned beans into tortillas.

She fed the children.

Finds Safe Refuge

“I am Catholic, and this is a safe place,” Saldierna said, her voice holding more hope than certainty. “Whenever anything happens, I go to church.”

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A daughter, Juliana, 19, said: “I’ve never been in a hurricane. I’m very scared.”

Outside the salmon-pink cathedral, the wind picked up. It blew between its twin spires and pounded the boards that covered its stained-glass windows. The wind whipped through the trees. Palm leaves rattled across the ground. People ran for cover.

Some shielded themselves with blankets and pillows as small trees whipped out of the ground and the branches of larger trees sailed through the air.

In the Red Cross office, Paulino Sanchez said he had gotten a dozen calls from people in shelters who were suffering diarrhea and high blood pressure. Most of the latter, he said, was caused by worry and stress.

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Sanchez’s office was filled with bags of food and medicine.

Fifty workers had been there since 5 p.m. Thursday, working around the clock, to distribute it. They hadn’t shaved.

“We have lots of work ahead of us,” Sanchez said.

700 Huddle in Sports Club

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Not far away, in the Chavez Sports Club, 700 people huddled inside, most of them in the dressing rooms because the gym floor was surrounded by windows, and everyone feared they would shatter.

Children were bored. Some ate crackers and sardines. Parents tried to listen to portable radios. Static crackled.

At midday, the electricity shut off.

Outside, the sky was slate gray. Colors muted. Now the wind and rain came in fits. When it calmed, the rain fell straight down. But when a fit of wind blew through it, the rain turned ghost white and churned in all directions.

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It was warm rain. People perspired in it.

Just across the Rio Grande, in Matamoros’ twin city of Brownsville, residents awoke fearing that their homes were in the hurricane’s bull’s-eye.

Outside, the rain began to fall, first in spatters, then in violent fits and starts.

Ants began crawling out of the ground. At the zoo, curator Jerry Stone told a news service reporter: “They have been coming in everywhere . . . as they seek higher ground.”

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Use Bullhorns

Police in yellow slickers fanned out across the city to urge stragglers in flood-prone colonias-- shantytowns--to get out while they could. They blared the message through bullhorns in both English and Spanish.

“About 50% of the city is at or below the poverty line, living in substandard housing,” explained city spokeswoman Pamela Downing.

“A lot won’t leave their homes, anyway. A lot will wait until the last minute.”

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Too poor to afford cars, many walked through the rain to shelters at schools and the civic center auditorium. Others took buses, until wind gusting up to 50 m.p.h. cut off service at midday.

“We can tell them to leave. We can warn them to leave. But we cannot physically force them to leave,” said Brownsville Mayor Ygnacio Garza.

Texas National Guard troops arrived to help with relief efforts.

As the last grocery store prepared to close at noon, last-minute shoppers raced down its aisles, heaping carts with bread, bottled water, fresh fruit, batteries and candles. Outside, the parking lot already was beginning to flood.

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Camp Out on Floor

At Jacob Brown Auditorium, near one of two pedestrian bridges that cross the Rio Grande River on the U.S.-Mexico border, a capacity crowd of about 800 people sought shelter. Families camped on the linoleum floor, using bags of groceries, pillows and ice chests to stake out small patches of refuge.

By noon, the wind had picked up and the rain began to fall in sheets. Restless children scampered through the crowded auditorium while their parents huddled around portable radios or televisions, watching and waiting for news.

Grandmothers sat silently in metal folding chairs. Some held Bibles on their thin laps. One middle-aged woman lay on her pink blanket with her hands folded in prayer, her eyes closed and her lips moving in rapid Spanish.

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Larry O’Neil, a 72-year-old retired merchant seaman, sat serenely in the chaos. The lights flickered off, then on again.

“Is this hurricane gone yet?” O’Neil demanded. “I want to go home.”

Home, actually, is Guadalajara, Mexico, which O’Neil left three weeks ago to visit a friend in Brownsville.

‘So Long, Willy!’

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“I came up to do some shopping, watch the World Series, just have a little vacation at my friend Willy Fernandes’ house,” O’Neil said. “But that shack didn’t look like it could stand 100-mile-per-hour winds, so I said: ‘So long, Willy!’ ”

Nonetheless, Hurricane Gilbert gave the old seaman little pause. “Nah,” he said, “I don’t worry about nothing.”

In the early afternoon, heavy rain fell, and the wind gusted at 62 m.p.h.

By now, the wind and flooding were making travel too dangerous. Streets were covered with water. Power lines were down. Trees and road signs were blowing over. “People are being advised to just stay where they’re at,” said Rene Torres, spokesman for the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office.

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Officials estimated that 20% of the residents had left town.

In an upscale neighborhood along the Rio Grande River, one person was arrested and charged with looting. “The power goes, the alarms go,” a deputy sheriff told news services, “and burglars start hitting businesses and residents.”

A large share of the refugees from the storm found their way to San Antonio, the first big city on major routes inland from Brownsville and Corpus Christi.

The Red Cross counted 4,000 in their 20 San Antonio shelters. They prepared for another 10,000. Police expected as many as 50,000.

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Local hotels and motels filled quickly.

“It’s just pandemonium,” said Terry Tomko, president of the local hotel association.

“I don’t have any expectations of seeing my house in good condition,” Anna Rodriguez declared, as she and 18 other family members from Taft, near Corpus Christi, settled in for an evening on the floor of a San Antonio high school gym.

Back home in Corpus Christi, people expressed relief.

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“It looks like Corpus Christi’s been spared,’ said Mayor Betty Turner. Sgt. Ruben Garcia, one of a dozen police officers on duty, added:

“People are getting braver and coming out.”

Researcher Lorna Nones in Miami also contributed to this story.

This story is based on reporting by staff writers Marjorie Miller in Matamoros, Mexico, Tamara Jones and Barry Bearak in Brownsville, Melissa Healy in Corpus Christi, Karen Tumulty inSan Antonio, J. Michael Kennedy and Larry Green in Houston and Richard M. Emerson in Los Angeles. It was written by Richard E. Meyer in Los Angeles.

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