Tropical Storm Ernesto races across Yucatan
CHETUMAL, Mexico — Tropical Storm Ernesto spun across Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula Wednesday, heading toward the country’s oil heartland after forcing the evacuation of thousands of tourists and fishermen from beaches in Tulum and the Costa Maya.
There were no reports of storm deaths or major damage, though Ernesto ripped down billboards, toppled trees and cut electricity service as it hit the cruise ship port of Mahahual shortly before midnight Tuesday as a hurricane with sustained winds of 85 mph.
“In many places the windows were shattered,” said Flori Cruz, a 27-year-old cook from the beach town.
Ernesto had weakened to a tropical storm while moving over land Wednesday, with winds near 45 mph, but it was expected to regain some strength after emerging over the southern Gulf of Mexico in a region dotted with offshore oil rigs.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm was about 60 miles east of Ciudad del Carmen, an administrative center for Mexico’s state oil company, and it was moving west at 15 mph. It was expected stay close to the coast before making a second landfall hear the key oil port of Coatzacoalcos in Veracruz state.
The oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, said it was closely monitoring the storm, but did not report plans to evacuate any of about 200 oil platforms in the area on Wednesday.
The federal Communications and Transportation Department closed two of the three main oil-exporting ports in the Gulf of Mexico because of the storm conditions.
As Ernesto neared Ciudad del Carmen, Fernando Perera opened the restaurant he manages as usual, saying he wanted to work as long as possible, since more rain is expected after the storm passes.
“The wind is blowing pretty heavily, but it still feels normal,” Perera said. “But people are staying away. What we fear is the weekend.”
Officials in Veracruz set up about 20 shelters in preparation for the storm, said Victor Hugo Ceron of the state civil defense agency. Veracruz Port Captain Enrique Casarrubias said the port there was closed to smaller vessels.
He also said the Carnival Elation cruise ship canceled its Wednesday stop in the city.
Ernesto has been the strongest storm to form in the Atlantic Ocean since hurricane season began on June 1, said Hurricane Center meteorologist David Zelinsky, though stronger hurricanes hit Pacific coastal communities in May and June, causing at least three deaths.
“Up to this point, most of the systems have been relatively weak,” he said.
Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo state, was the closest sizable city near where Ernesto made its landfall and officials moved more than 1,300 tourists there from resorts in Mahahual, Bacalar and other spots that were expected to see heavier rain and wind.
The Federal Electricity Commission said blackouts affected about 85,000 people in the coastal communities and schools were closed Wednesday in Quintana Roo.
At her grocery store in Mahahual on Wednesday, Joaquina Huerfano was trying to rescue whatever food and furniture was still in good condition after the place was flooded. Water stood 2 feet (60 centimeters) high at the shop.
“It’s all flooded and dirty,” Huerfano said. “Now we have to get to work and clean.”
In the city of Tulum to the north, some 6,000 tourists sheltered in hotels away from the beach.
Soldiers and police evacuated all residents of low-lying coastal settlements, said Luis Gamboa of Quintana Roo’s Civil Protection office. Terrified by the strong winds blowing and heavy rainfall, some residents suffered nervous breakdowns, officials said.
The storm also struck south of the big resort areas of Cancun and the Riviera Maya, but officials prepared shelters there as a precaution.
Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Gilma neared hurricane strength in the Pacific Ocean about 645 miles (1,040 kilometers) southwest of the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, with winds near 70 mph (110 kph). The storm was not expected to threaten land.
Associated Press writers Adriana Gomez Licon in Mexico City; Miguel Angel Hernandez in Veracruz, Mexico and Antonio Villegas in Tabasco, Mexico, contributed to this report.