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Emily Hits Cozumel, Cancun

Hurricane Emily roared over the island of Cozumel early Monday and lashed Cancun's famous white-sand beaches with rain and punishing waves, ripping down billboards and forcing thousands of residents and tourists to evacuate to higher ground.

Power outages are reported in Cancun and in Playa del Carmen, a resort town south of Cancun, as well as on the islands of Cozumel and las Mujeres.

Many vacationers at what are Mexico's best known beach resorts paid little attention to the hurricane until the final hours before it hit. CBS News Correspondent Lee Cowan reports tens of thousands of tourists from Cozumel to Cancun rushed the airports Sunday morning.

Many found it was too late to leave and wound up spending the night at the Cancun airport, praying the airport would weather the storm.

So far no casualties have been reported in Mexico.

The Category 4 hurricane caused heavy flooding that swept four people to their deaths in Jamaica on Saturday. In Mexico, it downed signs, toppled trees and whipped white sands from the beaches in Cancun.

Two other people were killed in a helicopter crash in the Gulf of Mexico as more than 15,500 workers were evacuated from offshore oil platforms, raising to seven the number of people killed in the second major hurricane of the Atlantic season.

Emily's winds decreased from 145 mph to 135 mph as it bore down on the Mexican coastline Sunday evening. Forecasters say it will likely weaken further as it heads across the peninsula and enters the Gulf of Mexico.

In Cancun, hundreds of buses moved over 25,000 tourists, many clutching pillows, to temporary shelters, part of the nearly 60,000 people being evacuated from resort towns like Tulum and Playa de Carmen.

Cancun's airport closed Sunday afternoon after thousands lined up at ticket counters, trying to get flights out before the storm hit.

"We're not going to sleep tonight," Cancun Mayor Francisco Alor said.

By late afternoon, heavy winds tugged at palm trees and sent the last people at the beach running for their cars.

One Cancun resident, 23-year-old Christopher Espinoza, braved howling bursts of wind to look out over the pounding surf. "The waves are already starting to take away part of the beach," he said.

Erosion has long been a problem for Cancun, and waves were starting to lap almost at the doorsteps of some hotels.

Hundreds of mostly foreign tourists lay shoulder-to-shoulder on thin foam pads in a sweltering gymnasium near the center of Cancun, one of Mexico's most popular tourist destinations known for its white-sand beaches, sprawling hotel complexes and all-night discos.

The evacuees were given free bottled water and sandwiches, and many gasped when a hard rain rattled the metal roof of the building. Some asked how long they would have to remain.

"It's hot in here," said Beth McGhee, 46, a tourist from Independence, Mo. "We feel like we've been kept in the dark until this morning. But we're safe, and that's what's important."

Cancun's mayor, Francisco Alor, said the city was preparing for a near-direct hit by Emily.

"This hurricane is coming with the same force as Gilbert," he said referring to a notorious 1988 hurricane that killed 300 people in Mexico and the Caribbean.

The city's last big evacuation was for Gilbert. But in 1988, the city and surrounding resort areas had only about 8,000 hotel rooms. That number has since grown to over 50,000.

Tourism and hotel officials had said guests of beachside hotels would be relocated to ballrooms and convention centers in larger, well-protected hotels, but the first wave of evacuees was ferried to gymnasiums and government schools.

In Jamaica, torrential rains drenched the south coast and washed away at least three houses, while a man, a woman, an infant boy and his 5-year-old sister were swept away in a car Saturday night. Searchers on Sunday found the four bodies trapped inside the car, which was filled with mud and other debris, police said.

The Cayman Islands escaped major damage Saturday. The islands and a handful of other Caribbean countries were devastated last year when three catastrophic hurricanes - Frances, Ivan and Jeanne - tore through the region with a collective ferocity not seen in years, causing hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars in damage.

Late Sunday, the center of the storm was 50 miles southeast of Cozumel, an island just south of Cancun, and was approaching the peninsula at about 20 mph.

Tourists in Cozumel also were moved to more central accommodations and local residents prepared to flee their homes for shelters in schools and communities on the island.

Mexico's government-owned oil company, Pemex, removed the last few hundred workers from oil platforms on the Gulf of Mexico. Strong winds downed a helicopter participating in the evacuation on Saturday night, killing a pilot and co-pilot.

The platform evacuations closed 63 wells and halting the production of 480,000 barrels of oil per day.

Emily has unleashed heavy surf, gusty winds and torrential rains across the Caribbean, hitting hard Thursday at Grenada, where at least one man was killed when his home was buried under a landslide.

The storm trailed Hurricane Dennis, which killed at least 25 people in Haiti and 16 in Cuba earlier this month.

Forecasters have predicted up to 15 Atlantic tropical storms this year, including three to five major hurricanes. The hurricane season began June 1 and runs through Nov. 30.

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