CANCUN, Mexico (AP) — Hurricane Delta, a slightly weakened but still dangerous Category three storm, barreled toward Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula with winds of 120 mph (195 kph) for an expected landfall south of the Cancun resort before dawn Wednesday.
Quintana Roo Governor Carlos Joaquín said the state government had prepared, but warned residents and tourists that “it is a strong, powerful hurricane,” though he considered it a good sign that Delta had weakened a bit late Tuesday. He said the area hadn’t seen a storm like it since Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
Delta increased in strength by 80 mph in just 24 hours, more than doubling from a 60 mph storm at 2 pm EDT Monday to 140 mph at 2 pm EDT Tuesday. Its top winds peaked at 145 mph (230 kph) before weakening slightly late Tuesday as it closed in on Yucatan.
Forecasters warned it was still an extremely dangerous storm despite that weakening, saying it threatened to bring a life-threatening storm surge that could raise water levels nine to 13 feet (2.7 to 4 meters), along with large and dangerous waves and flash flooding inland.
Delta was centered about 80 miles (130 kilometers) from Cozumel early Wednesday and moving west-northwest at 16 mph (26 kph).
Thousands of Quintana Roo residents and tourists waited for the storm hunkered down in dozens of government shelters. Everyone was ordered off the streets by 7 pm.
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, Rashonda Cooper, and their sons, seven-year-old Liam and four-year-old Easton.
“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 more than 40,000 tourists were in Quintana Roo, a fraction of what would normally be there. Delta’s damage comes on top of months of pandemic-induced 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 a strike on the US Gulf coast later in the week.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said Delta was expected to make landfall there Friday night or Saturday morning and the entire state is in the storm’s possible path. State and local officials in coastal areas were shoring up levees, sandbagging and taking other protections 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. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Tuesday that 5,000 federal troops and emergency personnel were being made available in Quintana Roo to aid in storm efforts.
Local and state officials urged residents to move to shelters.
Juan Carlos Avila arrived at the Technological Institute of Cancun shelter with his seven-months pregnant wife, Joselyn, and their 3-year-old-son, Alexander. He said the staff had made them comfortable and seemed well prepared.
The family, which lives in Miami, had been in Cancun a week and already went through Tropical Storm Gamma, which soaked the area over the weekend.
“We’ve practically lived in storms during our stay here in Cancun,” Avila said.
Associated Press writers Gabriel Alcocer in Cancun and Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, La. contributed to this report.