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Tropical storm nears Cancun

Friday, July 11, 2003

CANCUN, Mexico -- Mexican authorities issued hurricane warnings and evacuated tourists from beach-side cabanas on Thursday as a strengthening Tropical Storm Claudette churned toward Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

A hurricane warning was in effect for the entire length of the eastern Yucatan Peninsula including Cancun, as well as for the nearby island of Cozumel, a frequent stopover for cruise ships.

The storm, packing maximum sustained winds of near 70 mph, with higher gusts, was located about 175 miles southeast of Cozumel, and was moving northwest at 14 mph.

That track would bring Claudette's center over the Yucatan Peninsula near Cancun late Thursday or early Friday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

Tropical storm-force winds extended up to 160 miles from the center of Claudette, which showed some signs of possible weakening Thursday. Tropical storms become hurricanes when sustained winds reach 74 mph.

Civil defense officials in Tulum, about 80 miles south of Cancun advised hotel owners to evacuate guests staying at beach-side cabanas there.

About 25 guests were asked to leave the wood-and-thatch huts at Tulum's hotel El Mirador, said manager Asael Concha. Hotel employees moved wooden beach furniture out of harm's way.

"It's not safe, really," said Concha. "This way there won't be any problems." But even as the storm neared the coast, more disappointed backpackers showed up, only to be told they'd have to look for lodging further inland.

There were few signs of storm preparations in Cancun, where winds whipped palm trees and sent newspapers flying across the peninsula's main highway.

A light drizzle fell on workers securing porch awnings and ceiling fans at Dadyrock Club disco, which planned to stay open during the storm.

Elide Castillo, 38, dismantled her red, flowered beach umbrella while her three sons, still dripping from a last-minute swim in the ocean, gathered their things for an early trip back home to the city of Chetumal, on Mexico's southern border with Belize.

Castillo said she and her family planned to stock up on water and other supplies and had researched shelter locations in Chetumal.

"There are always storms at this time of year, and you have to remain calm," she said.

Rosio Hernandez, who arrived in a still-sunny Cancun early Thursday for a week's vacation with her husband and three children, said she didn't hear about the storm until late Wednesday, when it was too late to change plans. The family from northern Mexico planned to tough it out.

"It's our only vacation of the year," she said.

No flights had been delayed or canceled at Cancun's airport Thursday, airport spokesman Eduardo Rivadeneyra said. The airport is Mexico's second-busiest, after Mexico City, with 8 million passengers annually.

"Every year we live with tropical storms and hurricanes," Rivadeneyra said.

Claudette, the third tropical storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, developed Tuesday in the Caribbean. Before heading toward Mexico it brushed Jamaica's southern coast with heavy rain and rough surf, battered the Cayman Islands with dangerous waves and above-normal tides and scattered rain over parts of Cuba.

Royal Caribbean International diverted three cruise ships because of the storm, spokesman Michael Sheehan said.

Experts have predicted a busy Atlantic hurricane season, which began June 1 and ends Nov. 30.


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