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Strengthening Hurricane Rina on course for Mexico's Caribbean resorts; evacuations under way
CANCUN, Mexico (AP) ' Authorities evacuated fishing communities on Mexico's resort-studded Caribbean coast and some tourists began to leave, as Hurricane Rina took aim at Cancun and the island of Cozumel on Wednesday.
Hundreds of residents from the fishing town of Punta Allen, south of Tulum, were taken to emergency shelters and a smaller group was evacuated from the low-lying hamlet of Banco Chinchorro Tuesday, and cruise ships shifted their routes in the face of expected storm surges, waves and heavy rains from Rina.
Rina's maximum sustained winds remained steady at about 110 mph (175 kph), said the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, making it a Category 2 storm. Forecasters predict it will strengthen as it nears the Mexican coast Wednesday night before rolling over the island of Cozumel, a popular dive spot and cruise-ship port, then along the coast to Cancun.
Soldiers, marines and state police arrived with vehicles in Punta Allen on Tuesday to evacuate about 275 residents and take them to a storm shelter at a middle school; about 500 people are expected to be evacuated there in total, according to Quintana Roo state Civil Defense Director Luis Carlos Rodriguez.
The coastal area around Tulum is dotted with Mayan ruins, and further north is Playa del Carmen, another popular spot for international tourists and the departure point for ferries serving Cozumel.
State Tourism Director Juan Carlos Gonzalez Hernandez said there were about 83,000 tourists in the state, with about 45,000 of those on a stretch of coast south of Cancun that includes Tulum and Playa de Carmen, and almost 28,000 in Cancun.
There were only about 1,719 tourists in Cozumel, and many of them were leaving, Gonzalez Hernandez said.
"In the case of Cozumel, which could be hit hardest, people are leaving of their own accord and are cutting their reservations short," said Gonzalez Hernandez.
But some were planning to ride out Rina.
Douglas Baird, 40, of Glasgow, Scotland, said he had been in Playa del Carmen for 11 days on a tour with 10 other people. He plans to stay for the five remaining days of his vacation.
"I'll go to the bar," he said about his plans for waiting out his first hurricane. "It won't be a problem."
But Wendy Powers, a 49-year-old from Louisiana who was taking a stroll at a shopping mall with two other friends, said she hadn't heard anything about the storm until a reporter told her about it. Still, she said she wasn't worried.
"We had Katrina and we survived it," Powers said. "If the one coming here is a category 1 or 2, we could have a beach party."
In Cancun's hotel zone, a string of pickup trucks hauled small boats and jet skis away from marinas, while workers at shopping malls began boarding up windows.
At least eight cruise ships were changing itineraries away from the storm's path, said Carnival Cruise Lines spokesman Vance Gulliksen.
Three cruise ships from the company Norwegian Cruise Line and one from Royal Caribbean have canceled their Friday port of call in the area, said Hiram Toledo, Quintana Roo port administrator.
The area was badly damaged by Hurricane Wilma in 2005, when Cancun's famous white-sand beaches were largely washed away. Insurance officials estimated total damage at $3 billion.
State officials said they were readying more than 1,100 shelters that could handle nearly 200,000 people, though so far there was no word of any planned evacuations.
The hurricane was centered about 250 miles (405 kilometers) southeast of Cozumel Tuesday night and was moving west at near 3 mph (6 kph), the Hurricane Center said.
Forecasters said Rina was likely to strengthen into a Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of about 115 mph (185 kph) by Wednesday.
The forecast track shows it curving east toward Cuba by the weekend, but senior hurricane specialist Michael Brennan at the hurricane center said it could also move toward southern Florida.
Associated Press writer Adriana Gomez Licon in Mexico City contributed to this story.