Holidaymakers crowd into makeshift shelters to escape hurricane

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They had come to Mexico in search of white sandy beaches, pristine waters and bright, searing sunshine. But yesterday, hundreds of British tourists were spending their holiday in ramshackle storm shelters as Hurricane Emily roared through the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico.

More than 12,000 tourists were taken to hurricane shelters in the popular resort of Cancun as the Category 2 storm battered the central American coastline, snapping power lines, knocking down tree trunks and whipping up the usually calm seas. As 15ft-high waves slammed into the seafront, and black storm clouds lowered over their heads, tourists wading through knee-deep flood waters quickly saw their dream holidays becoming nightmares.

The glamorous Maya Riviera, whose bustling bars and five-star beachfront hotels make it the focal point of the country's luxury holiday industry, quickly became a ghost town as residents fled inland. Tourists were given just a few minutes to gather their belongings and head for makeshift accommodation.

British holidaymakers were among 2,000 people removed from three Cancun five-star hotels and crammed into a basketball gymnasium guarded by the Mexican army.

Mark Townsend, a tourist from Blackburn, was trapped inside the stiflingly hot gym with his four children. Clutching his baby daughter in his arms, he said they had been surviving for hours on just bottled water and small segments of fruit.

"We were in a five-star hotel this morning and we're now trapped in an old gym in temperatures in the nineties waiting for the storm to pass," he said. "My youngest girl is 12 months old and she's almost roasting. The government and the army won't let us out. We're trapped."

Two hundred British package-holidaymakers were moved without warning from their luxury hotel on the riviera to the two-star Hotel Kamna in central Cancun, where hurricane shutters had been fixed over the windows and old mattresses lay scattered in the bar and lobby for guests to sleep on. Bottles of water and empty packets of crisps and Ritz biscuits - the only food available - littered the floor.

Crammed into the dilapidated hotel bar and sitting despondently around a pool table, tourists complained of being "abandoned" by their holiday companies and left to fend for themselves by reps.

Gary Hurst, 27, an upholsterer from Burnley, who had been told to leave his hotel in the morning and taken to the emergency accommodation, said: "We've had nothing to eat and no booze for 24 hours. And they say this is an all-inclusive holiday."

Robby Beech, a roofer from Liverpool, was sharing two beds with his nine relatives. "We came over here for a couple of weeks in the sun and now look at it," he said. "It's absolute chaos."

"This is my first trip outside the United States and then this happens," said Rod Jones, a teacher from Michigan as he sat nervously in a blacked-out hotel room clutching a pillow. I'm just going to keep praying."

Elegant ballrooms played host to tourists, while conference rooms were transformed into dormitories. Hotels squeezed in 15 people per room and public buildings such as schools and gymnasiums took in an estimated 60,000 people.

More than 25,000 local residents and foreign tourists had already been moved over the weekend from Cancun when Emily hit in the early hours of yesterday. At one stage the hurricane was packing winds of up to 135mph, making it a category 4 storm, but these calmed to 100mph as moved inland.