Hurricane Jimena, an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm, barreled toward Mexico's Baja California peninsula on Tuesday, forcing tourists to flee the Los Cabos resort area.
Carrying winds of nearly 155 mph, Jimena was due to brush past the tip of the peninsula, home to world class golf courses and yachting marinas, later on Tuesday before making landfall in a sparsely populated area.
Residents, many of them poor hotel workers or builders, huddled into shelters and U.S. tourists sought early flights home to avoid the howling winds and torrential rain.
I've never seen a storm this big in the 23 years I have lived here, said local resident Caterina Acevedo in Los Cabos, a lively resort area at the tip of the peninsula.
This one is really scary ... but when I tried to leave there were no seats on the planes.
Winds from Jimena already knocked down a power line, which lay on the ground firing sparks into the air.
Jimena was close to being declared a potentially catastrophic Category 5 hurricane, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
It's very worrying. I had to come here because I was with a friend in a cardboard house, said construction worker Rene Carrera, 33, at a school turned into a shelter.
Category 5 hurricanes are the top of the Saffir-Simpson intensity scale and can be devastating if they hit land.
Much of Baja California is desert and mountains that are popular with nature lovers, surfers, sport fishermen and retirees. Los Cabos, which is more built up, attracts tourists to its golf courses and beaches.
Mexico, a major oil producer, has no oil installations in the Pacific or significant coffee and mining interests in the area.
A meeting of economy officials from dozens of countries to discuss tax havens, hosted by the Paris-based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, had to be moved from Los Cabos to Mexico City as the storm threat grew.
Los Cabos, normally bathed in brilliant sun from dawn to dusk, was rainy and windy on Tuesday morning.
Yachts, water taxis and glass-bottomed boats were removed from the water at the port of Cabo San Lucas.
Colleen Johnson, 55, who just moved here from Canada, stocked up on water, batteries and canned food. We're a little leery, but I think we are doing everything right, she said at a Wal-Mart store that had run out of rain ponchos.
Civil protection authorities opened emergency shelters in schools for the area's poorest residents, many of whom live in plywood shacks, but few seemed keen to leave. Empty city buses waited for voluntary evacuees.
Jimena was about 155 miles south of Cabo San Lucas and moving north-northwest at 12 mph. Hurricane force winds extended outward up to 45 miles from its center.
The Hurricane Center forecast it would buffet the Los Cabos area on Tuesday and move inland on Wednesday, dumping 5 to 10 inches of rain on southern Baja California.
Mexico issued a hurricane warning for the area. The U.S. Hurricane Center predicted significant coastal flooding. Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion, it said.
Many tourists preferred to cut short their vacation than spend two days in a storm shelter. I don't want to get stuck here, said Neil Freese, 29, an American on his way to the airport.
Jimena is the second hurricane of the 2009 eastern Pacific season to brush close to Mexico after Andres pounded the coast in June and swept a fisherman to his death in Acapulco.