Dean Lashes Mexico, Belize

Hurricane Dean east of Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, (8/20/07 at 21:15 UTC), NOAA satellite photo 2007/8/20 AP/NOAA

The eye of Hurricane Dean has struck Mexico's Caribbean coast, with winds of as much as 160 miles per hour also being felt in Belize. Oil rigs and tourist spots were evacuated as local authorities braced for what became a Category 5 storm as it headed for the Yucatan peninsula.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the eye of the storm came ashore in Mexico Tuesday, near Chetumal, at about 4:30 a.m. Eastern time.

Dean Monday strengthened into a Category 5 storm capable of catastrophic damage as its first rain and winds began hitting the coasts of Mexico and Belize. Thousands of tourists fled the beaches of the Mayan Riviera as the fast-moving storm roared toward the ancient ruins and modern oil installations of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Mexico's state oil company, Petroleos de Mexico, said it was evacuating all of its more than 14,000 offshore workers in the southern Gulf of Mexico, which includes the giant Cantarell oil field. Dozens of historically significant Mayan sites also were emptied, and any metal signs or objects that could go airborne in hurricane-force winds were removed.

Dean — which has killed at least 12 people across the Caribbean — quickly picked up strength after brushing Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

Category 5 storms are monstrous, and rare — only three have hit the U.S. since record-keeping began.

Cancun's swanky hotels, many of them newly hurricane-proofed, seemed likely to be spared a direct hit.

An estimated 20,000 tourists are still in the area, reports CBS News correspondent Bianca Solorzano. Hundreds packed Cancun's airport Monday – many desperate to get on extra flights that airlines added.

Oil rigs are made of steel, designed to withstand damaging winds. And ancient Mayan sites like the stunning seaside temples at Tulum, about 75 miles north of Chetumal, were built from solid limestone.

Dean appeared to be bearing down on the Yucatan's most vulnerable population — the Mayan people — many of whom have seen little of the riches from oil or tourism, and still live in traditional wooden slat huts in small settlements all over this low-lying area.

A large storm surge could push seawater deep inland, and Dean's heavy rains could inundate the swampy region.

"Yes, we are afraid," said construction worker Pedro Kanche, a Mayan, as he nailed boards against the windows of a shop in Cancun late Sunday. "The truth is that a lot of people lost jobs" during Hurricane Wilma in 2005, "and tourism still hasn't recovered."

Tulum shopkeeper Israel Martinez, speaking as he too nailed up boards across store windows Monday, expressed the kind of cold logic that rules a coast marked by contrasts of poverty and wealth, Indian and outsider.

"The less the tourist centers are affected, the faster the recovery will be," said Martinez, 28, a non-Indian who has lived in Tulum for 15 years. "Nobody wishes ill upon their neighbors, but if some of these smaller towns are hit, they can be repaired faster," without affecting the area's lifeblood, tourism.

A hurricane warning is in effect from Cancun all the way south through Belize, as well as the Yucatan's western coast. All hospitals were closed in Belize City, the country's biggest, and authorities urged residents to leave, saying Dean is too strong for their shelters. Meteorologists said a storm surge of 12 to 18 feet was possible at the storm's center.

  • Joel Roberts

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