- The Washington Times - Monday, August 20, 2007

GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands (AP) — Hurricane Dean spared the Cayman Islands the worst of its fury today as it headed for a collision course with Mexico’s resort-dotted Caribbean coast, sending tourists fleeing for the airports and locals searching for higher ground.

Dean was already a powerful Category 4 storm as it raked the Cayman Islands. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said it could grow into a monstrous Category 5 hurricane before slashing across the Yucatan Peninsula and emerging in the oil-rich Gulf of Campeche.

While the storm’s center was expected to strike central Mexico, the outer bands of the storm were likely to bring rain and gusty winds to south Texas — already saturated after an unusually rainy summer. Texas officials were taking no changes — emergency operations centers opened, prison inmates were moved inland, and sandbags distributed.

The Mexican resort city of Cancun began evacuations and arranged for extra flights to help tens of thousands of tourists leave before Dean’s arrival. The hotel zone was quiet today, nearly all guests gone.

Florida Volynskaya, 24, of Baltimore, arrived at Cancun’s airport yesterday planning to spend the night on the floor in hopes of getting a flight out.

“We just wanted to get out anywhere,” said Volynskaya. “We really didn’t want to be in a shelter.”

Though forecasts had shifted the projected track to the south, Cancun still could face tropical-storm-force winds — forecast to extend over an area of about 75,000 square miles, about the size of South Dakota — and local fishermen were taking precautions.

“We’re leaving. You don’t play around with nature,” said Maclovio Manuel Kanul as he pulled equipment out of his beachfront fishing shack near Cancun.

“We still haven’t been able to recover from Wilma, and now this is coming.”

Hurricane Wilma ravaged Cancun in 2005, filling hotel lobbies with shattered metal, marble, glass and muck, and reducing beaches to thin strips. The storm caused $3 billion in damage, the largest insured losses in Mexican history.

Dean — the first hurricane of the Atlantic season — bore down late yesterday on the Cayman Islands after battering Jamaica, but the vulnerable British territory said Monday it had been “spared the brunt of Hurricane Dean.”

In one Cayman shelter — the gymnasium of John Gray High School — about 100 people gathered around radios last night, listening to the latest news about the hurricane.

“Whichever God you believe in, now is the time to bow your head and pray to him,” said Zemrie Thompson, the shelter coordinator. Those in the gym bowed their heads.

The storm has killed at least eight people as it has moved across the Caribbean.