Dean heads toward Gulf of Mexico

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FELIPE CARRILLO PUERTO, Mexico (AP) — Hurricane Dean swept across the Yucatan peninsula today, toppling trees, power lines and houses as it bore down on the heart of Mexico’s oil industry. Glitzy resorts on the Mayan Riviera were spared, but vulnerable Mayan villages were exposed to the full fury of one of history’s most intense storms.

President Felipe Calderon said no deaths were immediately reported in Mexico, after Dean killed 13 people in the Caribbean. But 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 as a ferocious Category 5 hurricane.

Dean weakened over land but was expected to strengthen as its eye moved over the Bay of Campeche, home to more than 100 oil platforms and three major oil exporting ports. The sprawling, westward storm was projected to slam into the mainland tomorrow afternoon with renewed force near Laguna Verde, Mexico’s only nuclear power plant.

“We often see that when a storm weakens, people let down their guard completely. You shouldn’t do that,” said Jamie Rhome at the U.S. National Hurricane Center. “This storm probably won’t become a Category 5 again, but it will still be powerful.”

At 5 p.m. EDT, Dean had winds of 80 mph and was centered about 60 miles west-southwest of Campeche. The storm was moving west at 20 mph, the National Hurricane Center said.

While 50,000 tourists were safely evacuated from resorts on the Yucatan peninsula, many poor Indians closer to the storm’s direct path refused military orders to leave their homes, according to Gen. Alfonso Garcia, who was running shelters in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, 30 miles north of the eye’s path.

Troops evacuated more than 250 small communities, and 8,000 people took refuge in 500 shelters, said Jorge Acevedo, a Quintana Roo state spokesman. Others turned away soldiers with machetes and refused to leave, but some of them changed their minds when the winds and rain intensified, he said.

Little was known about the thousands who rode out the storm in low-lying communities of stick huts or the handful who hid from soldiers evacuating smaller resorts like Majahual, where Dean made landfall with 165 mph winds and gusts of 200 mph — faster than the takeoff speed of many passenger jets.

“I’m really worried the hurricane passed over the Mayan communities, which are the poorest on the Yucatan peninsula,” Calderon said before leaving Canada on a flight to Chetumal, where he was expected to arrive tonight to assess the damage.

Mexican officials said they were making slow progress down nearly impassable, unpaved roads to reach these places. In less isolated towns, people emerged to survey toppled trees and downed power lines crisscrossing flooded streets.

“If only the government would lend us a hand,” said Georgina Hernandez, 59, whose three children all lost their homes in the town of Los Limones.

Dean’s path takes it directly through 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.

Insured losses from the storm are likely to range between $750 million and $1.5 billion, according to Risk Management Solutions, which calculates hurricane damage for the insurance industry. Most of that came in Jamaica, which said Tuesday it was postponing Aug. 27 general elections to survey the damage.

Mexico’s insured losses won’t exceed $400 million, predicted AIR Worldwide, another insurance consulting company.

Dean hit Mexico early today along a sparsely populated coastline, well to the south of major resorts. The brunt of the storm struck the state capital of Chetumal, where residents spent a harrowing night with windows shattering and heavy water tanks flying off rooftops. Sirens wailed for hours as the storm battered the city, hurling billboards down streets. The Federal Electricity Commission said 90,000 customers remained without power by midday.

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