CANCUN, Mexico - A massive evacuation of tourists in one of the world's largest resorts began Sunday, with hundreds of buses dispatched to move tens of thousands of vacationers away from Hurricane Emily, heading for a direct hit on Mexico's coast.
The size of the task was daunting: About 500 buses were ordered to move 30,000 tourists in Cancun — part of a total of 70,000-80,000 mostly foreign visitors to be evacuated statewide to temporary shelters in ballrooms and convention centers.
"We have very little hope that this will change course," said a grim-faced Cancun Mayor Francisco Alor. "This hurricane is coming with the same force as Gilbert," a legendary hurricane that killed 300 people in Mexico and the Caribbean in 1988.
That was the last time Cancun faced a mass evacuation. But back then, the city and surrounding resort areas were fairly new and had only about 8,000 hotel rooms; that number has since grown to more than 50,000.
By 8 a.m. EDT Sunday, Emily was located about 305 miles east-southeast of Cozumel, and was moving toward the island at about 20 mph, with sustained winds of nearly 150 mph. The eye of the storm was expected to make landfall on the Yucatan Peninsula late Sunday or early Monday morning, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Along the narrow spit of land that holds most of Cancun's palatial hotels, workers scrambled to board up businesses and remove traffic lights along the eight-mile main strip, to keep them from becoming wind-borne projectiles when the hurricane hit.
"This hurricane isn't going to take Cancun away from us," Alor vowed.
Some three dozen of the city's largest, strongest hotels were putting rows of beds in windowless meeting halls and ballrooms to shelter those evacuated from smaller hotels and exposed beach-side rooms.
On the island of Cozumel, just south of Cancun, tourists were moved away from beachside hotels to ones closer to the center of the island, which may lie almost directly in the path of the Category 4 storm.
An estimated 18,000 travelers streamed out of the Cancun airport Saturday in advance of the storm, and the terminal may close Sunday as the hurricane draws closer. Some flights to Cancun already have been canceled.
Improvised shelters were prepared at about 170 schools and community centers to hold local residents who may be forced to flee their homes. Authorities said they had enough food ready to feed 60,000-70,000 people.
Mexico also launched a large-scale evacuation of offshore oil platforms, ordering 15,000 workers off rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and leaving less than 1,000 attendants behind. The state-owned Pemex oil company said the move included closing 63 wells and halting the production of 480,000 barrels of oil per day.
Emily is expected to cross over the Yucatan peninsula and re-emerge in the gulf Monday. The hurricane is then expected to cross the gulf and hit Mexico again — this time near the U.S. border — later in the week.
On its passage through the Caribbean, Emily's winds ravaged hundreds of homes on the island of Grenada, destroyed crops and killed at least one man whose home was buried under a landslide.
As the storm passed near Jamaica Saturday night, howling wind gusts kicked up waves 8 feet tall and bent palm trees in Kingston, the capital. Torrential rains drenched parts of Jamaica's south coast and spread over the Cayman Islands.
Downed utility poles and piles of storm debris blocked the seaside highway to Kingston's international airport early Sunday. There were no reports of injuries.
"Mercifully, Jamaica was spared the worst," Land and Environment Minister Dean Peart said.
Hurricane center meteorologist Dave Roberts said Emily was the strongest storm to form this early in the Atlantic season since record-keeping began in 1860.
Authorities already evacuated some tourists from the mainland resorts of Tulum and Playa de Carmen, also south of Cancun, in some cases sending them as far away as Valladolid, a Yucatan city 100 miles inland.
About 1,800 people were evacuated from the islands of Contoy and Holbox, just off the coast.
Farther south, the government of Belize issued a tropical storm watch for the coast from Belize City northward to the Mexico border. In the capital, boats were being tied down or taken up river.
About 70 percent of the tourists being relocated in Mexico are foreigners; the evacuees will be given free food and lodging at shelters in convention centers or ballrooms, said Jesus Almaguer, president of the Cancun Hotel Association.
"It would be inhuman to charge them," he said.