CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) – Mexicans formed long lines at supermarkets near Cancun on Tuesday to stock up in preparation for a hit overnight from powerful Hurricane Delta, which weakened slightly as it bore down on the Caribbean resort and its famous shoreline.
Late on Tuesday, the Category 4 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale was packing maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour (209 kph), down from 145 mph earlier in the evening, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
“In the Yucatan Peninsula, potentially catastrophic hurricane conditions are expected in portions of the warning area late tonight and early Wednesday,” the NHC said.
Late on Tuesday, Delta was about 135 miles (217 km) east-southeast of the island of Cozumel off the coast.
Expectations of tropical storm conditions led to evacuations of coastal areas in Cuba. Delta is forecast to weaken and linger over Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula before strengthening again in the Gulf of Mexico, where oil companies were bracing for impact on their installations and ports closed.
Officials ordered evacuations of Cancun’s hotel zone and other coastal areas, and opened the city’s convention center as a shelter. Workers at the Avis car rental firm boarded up windows with wood under a light rain on Tuesday afternoon.
The governor of Quintana Roo state urged residents near the shore to evacuate, while recommending health precautions in shelters due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have to prevent COVID in these sites, we have to take all preventative measures to this effect,” Governor Carlos Joaquin said, noting that the hurricane could take 12 hours to pass through the state after touching down by 2 a.m.
Joaquin recommended households stock up on food and water for two or three days, anticipating delays in restoring water and electricity.
A hurricane watch was in place for an area stretching from the beach town of Tulum, west past Cancun, and including Cozumel, an island made famous by Jacques Cousteau for the quality of its reef scuba diving.
Since Monday, local residents have formed long lines at supermarkets and construction stores to load up on food and supplies to protect their homes, television images showed.
Panic buying left some shelves empty of basic pantry goods, said Marian Castro, who lives in Cancun’s hotel zone and recalls the destruction wrought by Category 5 Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
“I’m not scared, because after Hurricane Wilma … destroyed my house, this time we’re more prepared,” she said, pointing out her anti-cyclone windows.
Water levels could rise by as much as 9 feet (3 m) over normal tide levels near Delta’s landfall, accompanied by dangerous waves in the hurricane warning area.
The Yucatan peninsula was hit on the weekend by Hurricane Gamma, a smaller storm that nonetheless damaged property and forced restaurants and attractions to close, including the famed Chichen Itza pyramids.
The region at the heart of Mexico’s tourist industry has suffered various setbacks in recent years, most recently from the coronavirus pandemic.
Before that, the coast known as the Riviera Maya was affected by swaths of Sargasso seaweed on its pristine beaches.
Cuba’s western province of Pinar del Rio and the Island of Youth also hunkered down ahead of tropical storm conditions, with schools closed and coastal areas evacuated.
(Reporting by Anthony Espositon in Cancun, Mexico; Additional reporting by Brijesh Patel in Bengaluru, Raul Cortes, Daina Beth Solomon, Ana Isabel Martinez and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City, and Nelson Acosta in Havana; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Peter Cooney and Richard Pullin)