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Hurricane Dean slams Mexico's Yucatan, then heads toward Gulf oil installations

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FELIPE CARRILLO PUERTO, Mexico - 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 ancient Mayan ruins and headed for the modern oil installations of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Dean's path was a stroke of luck for Mexico: It made landfall in a sparsely populated coastline that had mostly been evacuated and skirted most of the major tourist resorts. It weakened within hours to a Category 2 storm, with maximum sustained winds of 105 mph.

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. Then it raced toward a Tuesday afternoon entry into the Bay of Campeche, where the state oil company evacuated the offshore rigs that produce most of Mexico's oil and gas.

The storm, which killed at least 13 people across the Caribbean, was expected to push a surge of seawater 12 to 18 feet above normal tides onto the coast and dumped huge amounts of rain on the low-lying Yucatan Peninsula, where thousands of Mayan Indians live in stick huts in isolated communities.

With the storm still screaming, there were no immediate reports of deaths, injuries or major damage, Quintana Roo Gov. Felix Gonzalez told Mexico's Televisa network, though officials had not been able to survey the area.

The governor said 250 small communities were evacuated, but local media reported that others turned away soldiers with machetes and refused to leave. Driving rain, poor communications and impassable roads made it impossible to determine how they fared.

The eye passed directly over the state capital of Chetumal, where residents were ordered to stay home until 10 a.m. Tuesday after a harrowing night with windows shattering and heavy water tanks flying off of rooftops. Sirens wailed constantly as the storm battered the city for hours, hurling billboards down streets. All electricity was down.

In the largely Mayan town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, about 30 miles north of the eye's westward path, people stared from their porches at broken tree limbs and electrical cables crisscrossing streets flooded with ankle-deep water.

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

"We began to feel the strong winds about 2 in the morning and you could hear that the trees were breaking and some tin roofs were coming off," said Miguel Colli, a 36-year-old store employee. "Everyone holed up in their houses. Thank God that the worst is over."

By 11 a.m. EDT, Dean had weakened to a Category 2 hurricane with winds of 105 mph . It was about 85 miles southeast of Campeche and was moving west at near 20 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center, which said it was expected to be a hurricane still when it reaches water again in the early afternoon.

"We often see that when a storm weakens, people let down their guard completely. You shouldn't do that," said Jamie Rhome, a hurricane specialist. "This storm probably won't become a Category 5 again, but it will still be powerful."

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.

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

Just to the north of Nautla is a strip of resorts known as the "Emerald Coast." Just offshore are many more oil rigs. And 35 miles to the south is Laguna Verde, Mexico's only nuclear plant, where 2,000 buses were brought in to evacuate personnel if necessary.

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.

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.

Only three Category 5 storms, capable of catastrophic damage, have hit the U.S. since 1935. Dean is the first Category 5 to make landfall in the Atlantic region since Hurricane Andrew hit south Florida in 1992.

President Felipe Calderon was cutting short his trip in Canada where he was meeting with President Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper so that he could travel Tuesday to the hardest-hit areas.

The crew of the U.S. space shuttle Endeavour prepared to land a day early Tuesday because of the threat NASA had once feared Hurricane Dean would pose to Mission Control in Houston.

Authorities evacuated Belize City's three hospitals and were moving high-risk patients inland to the nation's capital, Belmopan, founded after 1961's Hurricane Hattie devastated Belize City. Mayor Zenaida Moya had urged residents to leave altogether, saying Belize City lacks shelters strong enough for Category 5 storms.

In Mexico during the past three days, officials put more than 50,000 people on flights leaving various parts of the Yucatan peninsula, the federal Communications and Transportation Department said.

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. Dean is expected to be even stronger than Wilma, which stalled over Cancun and pummeled it for a day.

Dean had a minimum central pressure of 906 millibars just before landfall, the third lowest at landfall after the 1935 Labor Day hurricane in the Florida Keys and Hurricane Gilbert, which hit Cancun in 1988.

"A very low pressure indicates a very strong storm," said Hurricane Center meteorologist Rebecca Waddington.

The worst storm to hit Latin America in modern times was 1998's Hurricane Mitch, which killed nearly 11,000 people and left more than 8,000 missing, most in Honduras and Nicaragua.


Associated Press writers contributing to this report included John Pain in Miami; Karla Heusner Vernon in Ladyville, Belize; Lisa Adams in Mexico City; and Michael Melia in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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