Fierce Hurricane Dean batters Mexican resorts

 @ibtimes on August 21 2007 11:01 AM

Hurricane Dean slammed into Mexico's Caribbean coast on Tuesday, flooding streets, blowing the roofs off houses and battering resorts where tens of thousands of tourists and residents huddled in shelters.

Water surged down a main street at thigh level in Chetumal, a city of about 150,000 people near where Dean made landfall. Broken trees and street lights lay strewn around.

After killing 11 people on its rampage through the Caribbean, Dean was a Category 5 hurricane -- the strongest possible -- when it tore into Mexico, landing around the cruise ship port of Costa Maya, near the border with Belize.

But there were no immediate reports of casualties.

The storm lost some of its power over land and was downgraded to a Category 3, although forecasters warned that roaring winds and rains were still a threat.

Tourist resorts like Playa del Carmen and Cancun, devastated by Hurricane Wilma in 2005, appeared to have escaped major damage.

Litter and leaves were scattered on the streets in Playa del Carmen, where tired tourists emerged at first light after an uncomfortable night in a hotel converted to a shelter for 400 people.

I didn't sleep, I had backache, said Italian tourist Massimiani Luca, 31. There were nine of us in this room, eight in that room, he said.

The government of Quintana Roo state, which took the hit from Dean head on, said it was unaware of any deaths.

Tens of thousands of tourists fled Cancun over the weekend before Dean crashed into the area, famous for white beaches, crystal clear waters and Mayan ruins like Chichen Itza.

Chetumal was left without power when the hurricane's sustained winds of 165 miles per hour (265 kph) and gusts of up to 200 mph (320 kph) knocked over dozens of power poles and trees. The aluminum roofs of some houses were blown off.

THREATENS OIL INSTALLATIONS

Dean is likely to continue weakening over land but should still be a hurricane when it heads out into the oil-producing Campeche Sound on Tuesday night, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Mexico's state oil company has closed and evacuated 407 oil and gas wells, meaning lost production of 2.65 million barrels of crude per day.

Heavy rain drenched Belize, a former British colony that is home to some 250,000 people and a famous barrier reef. In Belize City, Chyla Gill was evacuated with her family from her wooden house and sent to a concrete school shelter.

We packed for a week because after the hurricane there is always flooding and we can't go back to our houses, she said. We live near a swamp and the crocodiles come out.

Category 5 hurricanes are rare but there were four in 2005, including Katrina, which devastated New Orleans. The higher number of powerful storms in recent years has reinforced research that suggests global warming may increase the strength of tropical cyclones.

Store windows were boarded up along the strip of Mayan Riviera beach resorts on the Yucatan Peninsula's east coast.

Hurricane Wilma two years ago washed away whole beaches, killed seven people and caused $2.6 billion in damages.

Dean swiped Jamaica at the weekend with roaring winds and pelting rain. Roads were blocked by toppled trees and power poles and police said two people were killed.

That took the death toll from Dean to eleven. Haiti was worst hit with four people dead there.

Poor local residents with badly built homes are often the worst hit by hurricanes.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon planned to cut short a visit to Canada, where he met U.S. President George W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to oversee the emergency effort.

(Additional reporting by Catherine Bremer in Playa del Carmen, Mica Rosenberg in Belize City and Ed Stoddard in Cozumel)

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