Hurricane Dean batters oil installations after slamming Yucatan

Published 4:39 pm Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Hurricane Dean closed in on the Mexican mainland Wednesday, battering evacuated oil platforms on the Bay of Campeche while regaining some of the force it unleashed on the Yucatan Peninsula.

Veracruz state Gov. Fidel Herrera said more than 10,000 people had been evacuated from coastal cities such as Tuxpan ahead of the storm’s expected strike in the early afternoon and schools were closed statewide.

Dean swept across the Yucatan on Tuesday after making landfall as a ferocious Category 5 hurricane, toppling trees, power lines and houses — but sparing glitzy resorts on the Mayan Riviera.

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Driving rain, poor communications and impassable roads made it difficult to determine how isolated Mayan communities fared in the sparsely populated jungle where Dean made landfall after killing 13 people in the Caribbean.

Greatly weakened from that overland journey, Dean moved across the Bay of Campeche in the southern Gulf of Mexico, home to more than 100 oil platforms, three major oil exporting ports and the Cantarell oil field, Mexico’s most productive.

The entire field’s operations were shut down just ahead of the storm, reducing daily production by 2.7 million barrels of oil and 2.6 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

Seventy percent of the oil city of Ciudad del Carmen was flooded Wednesday morning, Campeche state Gov. Jorge Carlos Hurtado told Mexico’s Televisa network.

The sprawling, westward storm was projected to slam into the mainland Wednesday afternoon near Laguna Verde, Mexico’s only nuclear power plant, which is suspending production.

At 8 a.m. EDT, Dean was a Category 1 hurricane with winds of 90 mph and was centered about 100 miles northeast of Veracruz, Mexico, and about 120 miles Southeast of Tuxpan, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said. It was moving west-northwest at about 20 mph.

That was up from winds of 80 mph a few hours earlier, but still far short of the wind strength it had at initial landfall.

Torrential rains, battering waves and a storm surge of six to eight feet above normal were forecast, and some strengthening was possible over the warm waters of the Gulf before landfall.

The center’s hurricane specialist Daniel Brown said Dean was unlikely to have enough time to strengthen beyond a Category 1 or 2 hurricane before making landfall Wednesday afternoon. Outer bands of the storm system reached the mainland before dawn.

The last tourists departed Tuesday from the beaches of Tecolutla, a getaway on the western Gulf of Mexico where the storm is forecast to hit.

Zbigniew Szadkowski, 50, a physics professor from Lodz, Poland, said he wanted to see a hurricane in action but was leaving anyway with wife Anna, 51.

“I wanted to stay but my wife said no,” he said.

Residents boarded up doors and windows on hotels facing the beach, and authorities issued stern warnings for the low-lying coast.

There were about 100 soldiers in the town who authorities said would be used for security or evacuation if needed. Javier Sanchez, the head of civil protection in Tecolutla, said residents were being encouraged to leave and a forced evacuation was not being ruled out.

Dean became the third most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall in recorded history when it plowed into the Yucatan Peninsula on Tuesday.

“It wasn’t minutes of terror. It was hours,” 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 weathered the storm in her new brick-walled house with her husband and 7-month-old daughter, Luna. Dean blew out the windows and pulled pieces from their roof.

They fared better than most: Hundreds of homes in the Caribbean town of Majahual collapsed as Dean crumpled steel girders, splintered wooden structures and washed away about half of the immense concrete dock that transformed the sleepy fishing village into Mexico’s second-busiest cruise ship destination.

The storm surge covered almost the entire town in waist-deep sea water, said fishermen Jorge Gonzalez, 29. He found refuge in the back room of a beachfront store whose steel security curtains were blown out, and had to help his dog Camilo keep his head above the rising tide.

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

President Felipe Calderon said no deaths were immediately reported in Mexico, but little was known about the thousands who rode out the storm in low-lying communities of stick huts.

Hurricane-force winds could strike as far north to La Cruz, about 200 miles south Texas, the hurricane center said.

Dean’s projected path is 400 miles south of Texas, where only heavy surf was expected. The space shuttle Endeavour landed a day early Tuesday because of the threat NASA once feared Dean would pose to Mission Control in Houston.