Tourists flee as Hurricane Dean heads for Mexico

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Hurricane Dean was barrelling towards Cancun and the rest of Mexico's Caribbean coast last night, intensifying into a full-blown category 5 storm after it brushed past Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

The hotel zone in Cancun, the ritziest of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula resorts, was almost empty as tourism workers sought higher ground inland and tourists camped out at the airport hoping to catch a flight before the airport closes.

Authorities in the resort, remembering the havoc caused by Hurricane Wilma in 2005, enacted evacuation procedures, established storm shelters inland and laid on extra flights.

Several hundred tourists, many of them from the US, slept on the floor of Cancun airport on Sunday night hoping for a flight. "We just wanted to get out anywhere," one tourist, Florida Volynskaya of Baltimore, told the Associated Press. "We really didn't want to be in a shelter."

For now, Dean has been powerful but relatively merciful. Jamaica looked at one stage to be in the eye of the storm, but Dean passed 23 miles off its south coast. That was still close enough to uproot trees, flood roads and tear the roofs off many homes and businesses.

In the central parish of Clarendon, police became involved in a shoot-out with looters at a shopping centre, but nobody was hurt. A prison complex in the south of the island lost its roof, but no prisoners escaped.

The road from Kingston, the Jamaican capital, to the island's main airport was transformed into an unnavigable mess of sand, boulders and downed power lines. Electricity and telephone lines were knocked out . Miraculously, though, there were no immediate reports of deaths or serious injuries. Had Dean scored a direct hit on Jamaica, the number of casualties could have been high, not least because many residents were afraid to leave their houses in case their property was stolen. The government set up more than 1,000 shelters but only 47 were occupied.

"Too much crime in Kingston. I'm not leaving my home," one suburban resident, Paul Lyn, told the Miami Herald. A curfew remained until late last night.

The only casualties of Dean so far have been on islands affected only by its outer edges. Six people in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, St Lucia and Dominica were reported killed and dozens more injured.

The most populated areas of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula might yet be spared the worst too. The latest projections suggested Dean's eye would pass south of Cancun and the other major resorts. But everywhere from Belize to the south coast of Texas, where the storm might arrive on Wednesday, was on high alert.

The space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere today, 24 hours earlier than planned, to avoid the high winds.

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