GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands (AP) — Hurricane Dean spared the Cayman Islands the worst of its fury today as it headed for a collision course with Mexico’s resort-dotted Caribbean coast, sending tourists fleeing for the airports and locals searching for higher ground.
Dean was already a powerful Category 4 storm as it raked the Cayman Islands. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said it could grow into a monstrous Category 5 hurricane before slashing across the Yucatan Peninsula and emerging in the oil-rich Gulf of Campeche.
While the storm’s center was expected to strike central Mexico, the outer bands of the storm were likely to bring rain and gusty winds to south Texas — already saturated after an unusually rainy summer. Texas officials were taking no changes — emergency operations centers opened, prison inmates were moved inland, and sandbags distributed.
The Mexican resort city of Cancun began evacuations and arranged for extra flights to help tens of thousands of tourists leave before Dean’s arrival. The hotel zone was quiet today, nearly all guests gone.
Florida Volynskaya, 24, of Baltimore, Md., arrived at Cancun’s airport Sunday planning to spend the night on the floor in hopes of getting a flight out.
“We just wanted to get out anywhere,” said Volynskaya. “We really didn’t want to be in a shelter.”
Though forecasts had shifted the projected track to the south, Cancun still could face tropical-storm-force winds — forecast to extend over an area of about 75,000 square miles, about the size of South Dakota — and local fishermen were taking precautions.
“We’re leaving. You don’t play around with nature,” said Maclovio Manuel Kanul as he pulled equipment out of his beachfront fishing shack near Cancun.
“We still haven’t been able to recover from Wilma, and now this is coming.”
Hurricane Wilma ravaged Cancun in 2005, filling hotel lobbies with shattered metal, marble, glass and muck, and reducing beaches to thin strips. The storm caused $3 billion in damage, the largest insured losses in Mexican history.
Dean — the first hurricane of the Atlantic season — bore down late Sunday on the Cayman Islands after battering Jamaica, but the vulnerable British territory said Monday it had been “spared the brunt of Hurricane Dean.”
In one Cayman shelter — the gymnasium of John Gray High School — about 100 people gathered around radios Sunday night, listening to the latest news about the hurricane.
“Whichever God you believe in, now is the time to bow your head and pray to him,” said Zemrie Thompson, the shelter coordinator. Those in the gym bowed their heads.
The storm has killed at least eight people as it has moved across the Caribbean.
Dean’s eye passed some 100 miles south of the Caymans, and the islands were spared hurricane-force winds, which extended outward up to 60 miles from the center.
Early today, Dean had maximum sustained winds of 150 mph, up from 145 mph Sunday, and could dump up to 20 inches of rain. Even if the hurricane continues a steady westward course toward Mexico, parts of Texas could be flooded by the storm’s outer bands.
“Our mission is very simple. It’s to get people out of the kill zone, to get people out of the danger area, which is the coastline of Texas,” said Johnny Cavazos, chief emergency director of Cameron County, at Texas’ southern tip.
Jamaica avoided the direct hit when the storm wound up passing to the south Sunday night. There were no deaths reported in Jamaica, but the storm uprooted trees, flooded roads and tore the roofs off many homes, businesses and a prison block. No prisoners escaped.
Police said officers got into a shootout with looters at a shopping center in the central Jamaican parish of Clarendon, but nobody was hurt. Curfews were in effect until Monday evening. Authorities also cut power on the island to prevent damage to the power grid.
The government set up more than 1,000 shelters in converted schools, churches and the indoor national sports arena, but only 47 were occupied as the storm moved in, said Cecil Bailey of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management.
As of 11 a.m. EDT, Dean was centered about 125 miles southwest of Grand Cayman.
George Lee, mayor of the Portmore community near the Jamaican capital Kingston, said appeals to evacuate went unheeded. Some islanders said they were afraid for their belongings if they moved to shelters.
“Too much crime in Kingston. I’m not leaving my home,” Paul Lyn said in Port Royal, east of Kingston.
Many tourists who did not get flights out took shelter at places like Sandals Whitehouse, a resort that has buildings capable of withstanding a powerful storm.
Trinice Tyler, a postal worker from Lake Elsinore, Calif., said she would weather the storm there “on my knees praying.”
“I’m celebrating my 40th birthday today, and it’s going to be a birthday to remember,” she said.
The National Hurricane Center said the first hurricane of the Atlantic season was projected to have sustained winds of 160 mph before plowing into Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula on Tuesday. The Mexican mainland or Texas could be hit later.
There was also a hurricane warning in effect for Belize’s coast.
PHOTO: Residents of Bull Bay, Jamaica, dig out homes that were knocked over by a tidal surge from Hurricane Dean. Jamaica avoided a direct hit when the storm passed to the south Sunday night. There were no deaths reported in Jamaica, but the storm uprooted trees, flooded roads and tore the roofs off many homes, businesses and a prison block.