Hurricane Dean Hits Mexican Mainland at Tecolutla

August 23, 2007

A sprawling Hurricane Dean slammed into land for the second time in as many days and quickly reached clear across to the Pacific Ocean, drenching central Mexico in heavy rain that swelled rivers and flooded houses from the Yucatan Peninsula to the Veracruz coast.

With top winds of 160 kph (100 mph), Dean’s center hit the tourism and fishing town of Tecolutla shortly after civil defense workers loaded the last evacuees onto army trucks headed to inland shelters. But there was no escaping the sprawling storm’s hurricane-force winds, which lashed at least 100 kilometers (60 miles) of the Veracruz coast.

“You can practically feel the winds, they’re so strong,” manager Maria del Pilar Garcia said as Dean howled outside the Hotel Sara in Tuxpan, about 60 kilometers (40 miles) north of the storm’s center. “I hope this passes quickly and the rivers don’t overflow.”

Sounds of crashing metal prompted farmer Moises Aguilar to risk dashing outside his house in Monte Gordo, 35 kilometers (20 miles) inland from Tecolutla, where he struggled to keep his balance against the pounding wind. Through the driving rain, he saw his neighbor’s corrugated metal roof blowing away before rushing back to his own family huddling in their living room.

“We’ve closed the curtains because we don’t want to see what is going on out there,” said Aguilar, his voice nearly drowned out by another crash. “I think that’s more metal roofing from my garage. I hope this ends soon.”

At 1 p.m. local time (2 p.m. EDT, 1800 GMT), dean was moving over Poza Rica, headed inland at 31 kph (19 mph)

Mexico suspended all offshore oil production in the gulf and shut down its only nuclear power plant as tens of thousands headed for higher ground. Dean struck land Wednesday as a Category 2 storm after regaining some of the force it unleashed on the Yucatan. Its first strike there on Tuesday was the third most intense landfall ever for an Atlantic hurricane.

At least 10,000 others were evacuated from Tuxpan, a few kilometers (miles) up the coast from Dean’s most destructive winds, said Veracruz Gov. Fidel Herrera.

Miraculously, officials said there were still no reports in Mexico of deaths directly caused by Dean, which killed 13 people in its tear through the Caribbean.

Dean’s top winds dropped to 140 kph (85 mph), Category 1, shortly after making landfall, but wind wasn’t the biggest threat. Rain was, swelling rivers and soaking mountains in a region prone to mudslides and flash floods. Up to 20 inches of rainfall were expected in some areas.

“The water is rising, it’s entering the houses now. The children are very frightened,” said Maria Luisa Cervantes, a mother of five who fled her low-lying home to a shelter in Poza Rica after a flying sheet of metal snapped power cables that flopped across her house.

The sharp mountain ranges that run parallel to Mexico’s coasts are dotted with small villages connected by precarious roads. Landslides and floods are common when even smaller storms carry in water from the Gulf of Mexico. One such storm in 1999 killed at least 350 people, destroyed tens of thousands of homes and damaged the pre-Hispanic ruins at Tajin.

“We don’t want the same thing so happen again and we said, ‘Let’s get out of here,”‘ Jesus Vargas, a worker at a tire repair shop, said in Poza Rica, 50 kilometers (30 miles) inland from Tecolutla. Poza Rica became the area’s command center, with shelters for thousands. But many street there flooded too as Dean passed overhead.

Dean first made landfall Tuesday as a rare Category 5 hurricane, capable of catastrophic damage, but the eye’s top winds were relatively narrow and appeared to hit just one town as it traveled west across the Yucatan: the cruise ship port of Majahual, where all but a handful of people had been evacuated. Good thing: the town was completely devastated.

Dean also moved quickly, sparing people from the flooding associated with slower storms.

Greatly weakened from its trip across land, Dean moved across the southern Gulf of Mexico, home to 100 oil platforms, three major oil exporting ports and the Cantarell oil field, Mexico’s most productive. All offshore production was halted ahead of the storm, reducing daily production by 2.7 million barrels of oil and 2.6 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

The storm surge flooded 70 percent of Ciudad del Carmen, a city of 120,000 where Mexico’s state oil company has major installations. The standing water in the low-lying town was 1 meter (3 feet) deep in many houses, Campeche Gov. Jorge Carlos Hurtado told the Televisa network. But there, too, no deaths were reported, and Pemex said its offshore platforms and loading facilities would emerge without major damage.

Mexico also stopped production and evacuated employees from its only nuclear power plant, Laguna Verde, on the Veracruz coast.

And officials closed archaeological ruins, including the UNESCO world heritage site of El Tajin, 35 kilometers (20 miles) east of Tecolutla.

The last tourists left Tuesday from the beaches of the Emerald Coast, a getaway on the western Gulf of Mexico where the storm was bringing battering waves and an expected storm surge of up to eight feet (2 1/2 meters) above normal.

“I wanted to stay but my wife said no,” said Zbigniew Szadkowski, 50, a physics professor from Lodz, Poland.

In Majahual, the few who stayed narrowly escaped with their lives. Dean demolished hundreds of homes, crumpled steel girders, splintered wooden structures and washed away large sections of the immense concrete dock that had transformed the sleepy fishing village into a top cruise ship destination.

“It wasn’t minutes of terror. It was hours. I wish I was exaggerating, but I’m not,” said Catharine Morales, 30, a native of Montreal, Canada, who has lived in Majahual for a year. “The walls felt like they were going to explode.”

Morales huddled down with her husband and 7-month-old daughter Luna in their new brick house as Dean blew out the windows and pulled pieces from their roof.

The storm surge covered almost the entire town in waist-deep sea water, said fishermen Jorge Gonzalez, who struggled through the night to keep his dog Camilo above water after taking refuge in a flooded store.

“There came a moment when I thought this was the end,” Gonzalez said.

Little was known about dozens of inland Mayan Indian communities where people living in stick huts rode out the storm. President Felipe Calderon was flying over the area to survey the damage on Wednesday.


Associated Press writers Julie Watson and Paul Kiernan in Mexico City, Mark Stevenson in Majahual, and John Pain in Miami contributed to this report.

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