Hurricane Emily slammed into Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula early Monday as a powerful Category 4 storm, bringing winds of 135 mph and punishing waves to the region's famous white-sand beaches.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Emily made landfall near Tulum — 100 miles south of Cancun. The northern eyewall — where the worst weather would be expected — passed directly over Cozumel, it said.
At 8 a.m. EDT, the eye of the storm was located over the Yucatan Peninsula, and the storm was moving to the west-northwest at about 17 mph. The top winds had decreased to about 100 mph.
No deaths or major damage were immediately reported from the storm's landfall.
"The damage is relatively minor," reports
Emily earlier was blamed for four deaths in Jamaica, and two helicopter pilots were killed Sunday while attempting to evacuate an oil rig off the Mexican coast in high winds.
The Category 4 storm knocked out power and phone service to much of Mexico's famous Riviera Maya coastline, where tourists rode out the storm in sweltering makeshift shelters set up in schools and hotel ballrooms.
"There's no power, no air conditioning. It was about 97 degrees during the day here yesterday, so you can imagine it was a long, hot, uncomfortable night in those shelters," said Cowan.
Though the storm weakened to a Category 2 hurricane while crossing the peninsula, it was expected to gather strength again after hitting Gulf waters later Monday.
"Emily will make landfall once again late Tuesday into early Wednesday over the northern sections of Mexico, about 100 miles or so south of Brownsville," says CBS News Meteorologist George Cullen. "The effects for southern Texas will be some heavy rain and squally winds."
Sunday in Cancun, hundreds of buses moved more than 25,000 people — mostly tourists — to temporary shelters, evacuating them from hotels and low-lying seaside neighborhoods in Cancun being battered by strong waves.
They were among the nearly 60,000 tourists being evacuated statewide from resorts like Tulum, Playa de Carmen and Cozumel, an island famous for its diving. 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.
Hundreds of mostly foreign tourists lay shoulder-to-shoulder on thin foam pads in a sweltering gymnasium near the center of Cancun. They were given free bottled water and sandwiches, but many gasped when a hard rain rattled the metal roof of the building.
"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."
Mexico's state-owned oil company announced Sunday that two pilots were killed in the Gulf of Mexico when their helicopter was downed by strong winds as they tried to land on an offshore oil rig to evacuate workers.
The craft, operated by a contract company, was part of a fleet of 15 ships and 26 helicopters that was working to transfer 15,500 oil workers to shore before Emily crosses the Yucatan peninsula and heads into the Gulf, likely making landfall again sometime Wednesday.
The platform evacuations closed 63 wells and halted the production of 480,000 barrels of oil per day.
By late afternoon Sunday, heavy winds tugged at palm trees and sent the last people at the beach running for their cars. Billboards were toppled by the storm.
Beach erosion has long been a problem for Cancun, and waves were starting to lap almost at the doorsteps of some hotels.
In Jamaica, which Emily had hit earlier, searchers on Sunday found the four bodies trapped inside a car, which was filled with mud and other debris, police said. A man, a woman, an infant boy and his 5-year-old sister had been driving through a flooded rural road in southwest Jamaica when a surge of water pushed them over a cliff, police said.
The Cayman Islands escaped major damage. 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.
Cancun's last big evacuation was for Hurricane Gilbert, which killed some 300 people in Mexico and the Caribbean in 1988. But the city and surrounding resort areas had only about 8,000 hotel rooms then. That number has since grown to over 50,000.
Storm preparations have also changed, improving with time.
"Back in the days of Gilbert, we didn't have prevention or prediction," said Cancun hotel worker Eduardo Gomez. "By the time we heard it was coming, it was already on top of us."
On the island of Cozumel, just south of Cancun, tourists in beach-side hotels were moved to accommodations closer to the center of the island, which lies almost directly in the hurricane's projected path.
Local residents also were expected to flee their homes to some of about 170 schools and community centers. Authorities said they had enough food ready to feed 60,000 to 70,000 people.
President Vicente Fox encouraged residents not worry about leaving property and possessions unguarded.
"That's what the army is for," Fox said.