CANCUN, Mexico — Delta rapidly intensified into a Category 4 hurricane with 140 mph wind Tuesday on a course to hammer southeastern Mexico and then continue to the U.S. Gulf coast this week.
The worst of the immediate impact was expected along the resort-studded northeastern tip of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, where hurricane conditions were expected Tuesday night and landfall early Wednesday.
From Tulum to Cancún, tourism-dependent communities still soaked by the remnants of Tropical Storm Gamma could bear the brunt of the storm.
Mexico began evacuating tourists and residents from coastal areas along its Riviera Maya on Tuesday. Quintana Roo Gov. Carlos Joaquin said that buses were carrying people off Holbox Island and hotels in Cancún and Puerto Morelos were busing their guests inland to government shelters.
Some hotels that had exemptions because their structures were rated for major hurricanes were preparing to shelter their guests in place and testing their emergency systems.
The official definition of rapid intensification of a hurricane is 35 mph in 24 hours. Delta has increased in strength 80 mph, more than doubling from a 60 mph storm at 2 p.m. Monday to 140 mph at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
Cancún Mayor Mara Lezama Espinosa said the city opened more shelters than usual to give people more space in recognition of the COVID-19 pandemic.
State Tourism Minister Marisol Vanegas said there were 40,900 tourists in all of Quintana Roo. That number is a fraction of what it normally would be due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The area’s economy was devastated by months of pandemic-caused lockdown.
Mexican 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 the storm effort.
The state’s airports remained open Tuesday morning, but beaches were closed. American Airlines said Tuesday it added two flights for people to leave Cancún and waived ticket-change fees.
“I honestly don’t see much that will stop it until it reaches Yucatán, due to low vertical wind shear, high deep-layer moisture, and the very warm and deep waters of the northwestern Caribbean,” National Hurricane Center forecaster Eric Blake said.
It was expected to arrive with a dangerous storm surge raising water levels by as much as 7 to 11 feet in the Yucatán, accompanied by large and dangerous waves, and flash flooding inland.
Once it moves on from Mexico, the storm is expected to regain Category 4 status over the Gulf of Mexico as it approaches the U.S. coast, where landfall about Friday would be followed by heavy rainfall across the southeastern United States.
“While there is large uncertainty in the track and intensity forecasts, there is a significant risk of dangerous storm surge, wind and rainfall hazards along the coast from Louisiana to the western Florida Panhandle beginning Thursday night or Friday. Residents in these areas should ensure they have their hurricane plan in place and monitor updates to the forecast of Delta,” the National Hurricane Center said.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards on Tuesday signed a state of emergency for their states. Beach communities on the Alabama coast are still clearing away the damage from Hurricane Sally, which made landfall at Gulf Shores on Sept. 16, as they warn people to be ready for Hurricane Delta.
Back in Cancún, Mexican tourists Stephanie Vazquez, 30, and her husband, Fernando Castillo, 38, took one last dip in the pool at the Fiesta Americana Hotel on Tuesday with their 2-year-old, Leonardo Castillo Vazquez.
“I feel there is a certain safety that the hotel has provided up to now. I know that we will be well protected, but you never can be 100% sure, because it is nature, and you don’t know what will happen,” Vazquez said.
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