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Hurricane Delta lashes Mexico's Yucatan, then heads for US

CANCUN – Hurricane Delta emerged into the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday and headed toward Louisiana after making landfall just south of the Mexican resort of Cancun, toppling trees and cutting power to residents of the Yucatan peninsula's resort-studded coast.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Delta weakened to a Category 1 storm during the afternoon, but it began strengthening again while moving over the southern Gulf, rising to maximum sustained winds of 90 mph (150 kph) Wednesday night. It was expected to gain even more strengthen before reaching the U.S. Gulf coast.

Delta could make landfall, possibly as a Category 3 storm, sometime Friday south of Morgan City, La., the forecast said. On Wednesday evening, the storm was centered about 525 miles (845 kilometers) south-southeast of Cameron, La., and heading west-northwest at 17 mph (28 kph).

The hurricane came ashore in Mexico around 5:30 a.m. Wednesday with top winds of 110 mph (175 kph). Officials said it caused no deaths or injuries, but did force hundreds of tourists to take refuge in storm shelters. It knocked out power to about 266,000 customers, or about one-third of the total on the Yucatan peninsula.

There were no reports of any deaths or injuries, said Carlos Joaquín González, the governor of the state of Quintana Roo.

“Fortunately, the most dangerous part of the hurricane has passed,” Joaquín González said, noting the big problem was downed trees that had knocked out power lines and blocked roadways.

Civil defense official Luís Alberto Ortega Vázquez said that as the storm approached about 39,000 people were evacuated in the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan. He said about 2,700 people took refuge in storm shelters in the two states.

Joaquín González said Wednesday that most of the tourists had returned to their hotels but a shelter had been opened to accommodate people stranded in Cancun by the cancellation of 157 airline flights. He said the international airport would resume its normal operations Thursday.

There were reports of some flooding in Cozumel and Playa del Carmen. Overnight emergency calls came in from people whose windows or doors were broken and they were taken to shelters, the governor said.

More than a thousand trees were knocked down by strong winds, but authorities expressed confidence that electricity would be restored to 80% of those affected Wednesday night.

Early Wednesday, guests of the Fiesta Americana Condesa hotel awoke in the sweltering classrooms of the Technological Institute of Cancun campus where they had been moved Tuesday.

All of the windows at the campus had been covered with plywood so they couldn't see what was happening, but they said the howling winds started around 2 a.m. and there had been heavy rain. The power — and with it the air conditioning — had been knocked out early Wednesday so it was steamy as tourists used their cell phone light to get up and make their way for a first cup of coffee.

By early afternoon they were returned to their hotel and the state announced that businesses could reopen at 3 p.m. and the ban on alcohol sales was lifted.

“The hard part has been the waiting,” said Ana Karen Rodríguez of Monterrey. She and a friend arrived in Cancun Tuesday morning and by afternoon were shuttled to the shelter. She said the hotel had planned well. “It’s been good. I feel comfortable actually.”

Throughout the day Tuesday, the situation had appeared grave for this stretch of the Mexican coast. Delta had increased in strength by 80 mph in just 24 hours, and its top winds peaked at 145 mph (230 kph) before it weakened as it neared the shore.

Evacuations of low lying areas, islands and the shore expanded as Delta exploded over the warm Caribbean waters. Much of Cancun’s hotel zone was cleared out as guests were bused to inland shelters. In Cancun alone, the government opened 160 shelters.

State tourism officials said more than 40,000 tourists were in Quintana Roo, a fraction of what would normally be there. Delta’s damage comes on top of months of pandemic-induced lockdown that has devastated the state’s tourism industry.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said Delta was expected to make landfall there Friday night or Saturday morning and the entire state is in the storm’s possible path. State and local officials in coastal areas were shoring up levees, sandbagging and taking other protections measures, he said.

Louisiana is still recovering from Hurricane Laura, which ravaged the southwestern region as it roared ashore as a Category 4 storm in August. More than 6,600 Laura evacuees remain in hotels around the state, mainly in New Orleans, because their homes are too heavily damaged to return.

In a residential neighborhood on the south side of Cancun, downed trees littered streets. Neighbors with machetes worked alongside firefighters and soldiers to clear the fallen timber.

The neighborhood, like much of the city, lost electricity and phone service early Wednesday. Once the strongest winds had subsided, residents emerged from their homes to assess the damage and take photos, momentarily forgetting the pandemic, masks and social distancing.

Pilar Sánchez said the fierce wind blowing through the bars on her windows woke her around 4 a.m. “Minutes later the power went and you could hear strong wind shaking the trees,” she said. She was still a bit shaken, but said she had lived through hurricanes there before.

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Associated Press writers Gabriel Alcocer in Cancun and Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.