Hurricane Rina lost some of its fury Wednesday but held course for a direct hit on Mexico's popular Caribbean beaches, where authorities ordered people out of low-lying areas.
|Hotel workers fill bags with sand in preparation for the arrival of Huricane Rin, in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo state, Mexico on October 26, 2011. |
As Rina spun toward the Yucatan peninsula coast, locals scrambled to tape up windows, and 1,000 emergency shelters were rushed open as powerful gusts sent palm trees flailing.
Rina, now a category one storm packing sustained winds of 140 kilometers (85 miles) per hour, is expected to come crashing ashore Thursday near internationally renowned "Riviera Maya" hotspots such as Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, famous for snow-white sands and turquoise sea.
On the beach in Playa del Carmen, Canadian tourist Pat Stevenson told AFP he was "curious."
"We got here a week ago planning to stay until December 3. We know a lot of people left because they were scared. But we are going to stay," he said, adding: "We think that we'll be safe in the hotel shelter."
Local resident Concepcion Tapia was out shopping for last-minute emergency provisions with her daughter and granddaughter. "We are asking God to help us," she said.
Her daughter Laura piped in: "Hurricane Wilma taught us that it is just as likely that nothing at all will happen, as for us to end up having to spend three days indoors after the storm. The only bad thing is that we could not find any more cans of tuna. They ran out everywhere."
Cuba was also being urged to prepare for high winds and heavy rains over the weekend as Rina curls off northward.
The Miami-based National Hurricane Center said Rina had weakened overnight, when sustained winds had reached 175 kilometers per hour.
But NHC experts said they do not expect it to weaken further before making landfall on Thursday.
The storm is expected to dump 8-16 inches (20-40 cm) on the eastern Yucatan and Cozumel through Friday, the NHC warned. That will come in addition to a storm surge that could be three feet above normal levels, the NHC said.
The US State Department has warned Americans living or on vacation in the area to prepare for the storm, and perhaps consider leaving Mexico as flights could be disrupted once the storm starts to bear down.
A Nicaraguan naval vessel that disappeared on Sunday with 29 people on board during an evacuation mission ahead of the storm was found on Tuesday with all occupants "safe and sound," officials said.
Rina is the sixth hurricane and 17th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30. After passing near or over Mexico's Yucatan, it is forecast to weaken as it spins toward Cuba and Florida.
US space agency NASA was taking no chances and evacuated a crew of astronauts from an underwater lab off the coast of Florida where they were training for a possible trip to an asteroid.