Hurricane Delta, a slightly weakened but still dangerous Category 3 storm, barreled toward Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula with winds of 120 mph for an expected landfall early Wednesday south of the resort town of Cancun.
Gov. Carlos Joaquín of Quintana Roo state said the government had made preparations, but he warned residents and tourists that “it is a strong, powerful hurricane.” He said the area hadn’t seen a storm like it since Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
Delta increased in strength in just 24 hours, its wind speeds more than doubling between Monday and Tuesday afternoon. Its strongest winds peaked at 145 mph before weakening slightly late Tuesday as it closed in on the Yucatan.
Forecasters warned that it was still an extremely dangerous storm, saying it could bring a life-threatening surge that raised water levels nine to 13 feet, along with large and dangerous waves and flash flooding inland.
Delta was centered about 80 miles from Cozumel early Wednesday and moving west-northwest at 16 mph.
Thousands of Quintana Roo residents and tourists hunkered down in dozens of government shelters. Everyone was ordered off the streets by 7 p.m.
Throughout Tuesday, the evacuations of low-lying areas, islands and the coastline expanded as Delta exploded over warm Caribbean waters into a major hurricane. Much of Cancun’s hotel zone was cleared out as guests were bused to inland shelters. In Cancun alone, the government opened 160 shelters.
Some 300 guests and nearly 200 staff from the Fiesta Americana Condesa hotel were taken to the Technological Institute of Cancun campus. All wearing masks, they spread out on thin mattresses in a classroom building and tried to get comfortable as workers boarded the building’s windows in a light rain. Some played cards or watched videos on their phones, while others called relatives.
“The hotel has done a good job of making sure that we were provided for and that we’re going to be safe here in this place, so we don’t have any concerns at all,” said Shawn Sims, a tourist from Dallas sheltering with his wife and two young sons.
“This is my first [hurricane] experience, but I see that these guys have a plan and they know what they’re doing,” Sims said.
State tourism officials said there were more than 40,000 tourists in Quintana Roo, a fraction of the usual number. The hurricane comes on top of months of a pandemic lockdown that has devastated the state’s tourism industry.
At the Cancun Convention Center, 400 tourists from hotels and rental properties bunked for the night.
“We hope that in this place we are surely much safer,” Quintana Roo Tourism Secretary Marisol Vanegas said. “This is a structure that has withstood other hurricanes.”
Delta was forecast to spend several hours lashing the Yucatan Peninsula before moving into the Gulf of Mexico and re-strengthening before hitting the U.S. Gulf Coast later in the week.
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Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said Delta was expected to make landfall there Friday night or Saturday morning, with the entire state in the storm’s possible path. State and local officials in coastal areas were shoring up levees, sandbagging and taking other protection measures, he said.
Louisiana is still recovering from Hurricane Laura, which ravaged the southwestern region as it roared ashore as a Category 4 storm in August. More than 6,600 Laura evacuees remain in hotels around the state, mainly in New Orleans, because their homes are too heavily damaged to return.
Mexico put the commander of its navy in charge of the federal response to Delta. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Tuesday that 5,000 federal troops and emergency personnel were being made available in Quintana Roo.