CHETUMAL, Mexico (Reuters) - Hurricane Dean, a monster Category 5 storm, smashed into Mexico’s Caribbean coast on Tuesday, its roaring winds and heavy rain battering beach resorts where thousands of tourists huddled in shelters.
Seas churned as the storm, which killed 11 people earlier on its rampage through the Caribbean, came to shore around the cruise ship port of Costa Maya, near the border with Belize.
Chetumal, a city of 150,000 people close to where Dean made landfall, was left without power when the hurricane’s sustained winds of 165 miles per hour (265 kph) and gusts of up to 200 mph (320 kph) knocked over dozens of power poles and trees.
Stranded visitors in Chetumal, which was battered by Hurricane Janet in 1955, huddled in the underground car park of one hotel, wild winds making it too dangerous to step outside.
The huge resort of Cancun further to the north escaped the worst of the storm but tourists and residents still took shelter. Tens of thousands of tourists fled Cancun over the weeked as Dean roared toward the coast.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said it was the first Category 5 storm to make landfall in the Atlantic Basin since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
It is expected to weaken as it passes over Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and then head out into the Bay of Campeche, where Mexico’s state oil company has closed and evacuated all of its 407 oil and gas wells, meaning lost production of 2.65 million barrels of crude per day.
Heavy rain drenched Belize, a former British colony that is home to some 250,000 people and a famous barrier reef. In Belize City, Chyla Gill was evacuated with her family from her wooden house and sent to a concrete school shelter.
“We packed for a week because after the hurricane there is always flooding and we can’t go back to our houses,” she said. “We live near a swamp and the crocodiles come out.”
Tourists squeezed into a hotel serving as a shelter for 400 people in Mexico’s Playa del Carmen resort, where winds violently shook palm trees. As many as 12 people were sharing some rooms.
“We could be two or three days without water or electricity,” said Italian vacationer Emanuela Beriola, 41, who stockpiled tinned meat, energy drinks and cans of tuna fish.
Category 5 hurricanes — the strongest possible — are rare but there were four in 2005, including Katrina, which devastated New Orleans.
The higher number of powerful storms in recent years has reinforced research that suggests global warming may increase the strength of tropical cyclones.
Troops and police patrolled the area hit hardest by Dean to enforce a curfew declared by the state government.
Store windows were boarded up along the strip of “Mayan Riviera” beach resorts on the Yucatan Peninsula’s east coast.
Cancun and other resorts were devastated in 2005 by Hurricane Wilma. It washed away whole beaches, killed seven people and caused $2.6 billion in damages.
Dean swiped Jamaica at the weekend with roaring winds and pelting rain. Roads were blocked by toppled trees and power poles and police said two people were killed.
That took the death toll from Dean to eleven. Haiti was worst hit with four people dead there.
Poor local residents with badly built homes are often the worst hit by hurricanes.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon planned to cut short a visit to Canada, where he met President George W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to oversee the emergency effort.
Additional reporting by Catherine Bremer in Playa del Carmen, Mica Rosenberg in Belize City and Ed Stoddard in Cozumel