Hurricane Dean Weakens As It Crosses Yucatan Peninsula

Hurricane Dean slammed into the Caribbean coast of Mexico on Tuesday as a roaring Category 5 hurricane, the most intense Atlantic storm to make landfall in two decades. It lashed remote Mayan villages as it raced across the Yucatan Peninsula to the heart of Mexico‘s oil industry.

It weakened to a Category 1 storm, with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph, but was expected to grow back into a powerful hurricane as it draws fuel from the warm waters of the lower Gulf of Mexico, where more than 100 offshore oil platforms were evacuated ahead of the storm.

When Dean first struck land near the cruise port of Majahual, it had sustained winds near 165 mph and gusts that reached 200 mph — faster than the takeoff speed of many passenger jets. It had an expected storm surge of 12 to 18 feet above normal tides and dumped huge amounts of rain on low-lying areas where thousands of Mayan Indians live in stick huts in isolated communities.

Soldiers evacuated more than 250 small communities, but some turned away soldiers with machetes and refused to leave or hid when the army evacuated the area, said Jorge Acevedo, a spokesman for the state of Quintana Roo. Their fate was unknown.

Just across the border in Belize, trees fell and debris flew through the air. The government evacuated Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye — both popular with American tourists — and ordered a dusk-to-dawn curfew from Belize City north to the Mexican border.

Tin roofing ripped from houses clunked hollowly as it bounced in the wind whistling through town.

In the Belizean town of Corozal, about nine miles south of Chetumal, Dean flipped over a residential trailer, detached roofs from houses, ripped plywood off windows and spread floodwaters as high as 3 feet. No deaths or major injuries were reported there or in Belize City, where thousands evacuated to higher ground.

Dean‘s path takes it directly through the Cantarell oil field, Mexico‘s most productive, with dozens of oil rigs and three major ports. All were shut down just ahead of the storm, resulting in a production loss of 2.7 million barrels of oil and 2.6 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day. The path also veers toward Mexico‘s only nuclear plant, where a state official said 2,000 buses were brought in to evacuate personnel if necessary.

Dean was to expected slam into the central Mexican coast as a major hurricane Wednesday afternoon about 400 miles south of the Texas border. The United States was expected to see few effects from the storm.

"We stand ready to help," Bush said with Calderon at his side. "The American people care a lot about the human condition in our neighborhood and when we see human suffering we want to do what we can."

The U.S. space shuttle Endeavour landed a day early Tuesday, its mission cut short by the initial possibility that Dean could pose a threat to Mission Control in Houston.

The storm picked up strength after brushing Jamaica and the Cayman Islands and became a monstrous Category 5 hurricane Monday. Jamaica postponed Aug. 27 general elections in order to survey damage, which was extensive in the capital and the island‘s east.

Dean is the first Category 5 to make landfall in the Atlantic region since Hurricane Andrew hit south Florida in 1992.

Insured losses from the storm are likely to range between $750 million and $1.5 billion, most of it Jamaica, according to latest estimates by Risk Management Solutions, which calculates hurricane damage for the insurance industry.

Cancun‘s tourist strip is still marked with cranes used to repair the damage from 2005‘s Hurricane Wilma, which caused $3 billion in losses.