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Blessings trump Dean

The Category 5 storm spares much of Yucatan, but the swirling threat is not over yet.

By Washington Post
Published August 22, 2007


FELIPE CARRILLO PUERTO, Mexico - In the grim darkness, as 160 mph winds lashed this small city, she lay in pain.

The electricity had long since gone out. Doors were stitched tight. The streets were bare.

But Angelica Tun Puc was awake in a powerless hospital here in the Yucatan Peninsula, fighting through the labor pains that began the night before. The night before Hurricane Dean.

Sometime before 9 a.m. Tuesday, while rain pelted windows secured only by crosses made of tape, Tun Puc gave birth to a tiny, wriggling baby girl, according to her doctor, Basilio Eliseo Ku Euan.

Tun Puc showed off her hurricane-day newborn for a small group of reporters and some of the police officers who rushed her to the hospital after finding her close to giving birth in a remote village.

Exhausted, she could utter only one sentence for her guests as she held her daughter tightly to her chest: "I haven't even thought what I'm going to name her."

'El Gigante'

Translated literally, the Spanish phrase for giving birth means "to give to the light." And not long after Tun Puc became a mother, the sun appeared for the first time, revealing a city that was far less damaged than expected.

The birth was a small blessing on a day of huge blessings here. The storm that the Mexican news media dubbed "El Gigante" - the giant - somehow found the one route through the Yucatan Peninsula that would cause the least damage, slipping well south of Cancun's glitzy hotels and thick residential neighborhoods. Trees fell, glass cracked, but there was none of the widespread, catastrophic wreckage that a storm this huge - the first Category 5 hurricane in 25 years to make landfall in the Atlantic basin - was capable of sowing.

Though Dean killed 13 people during three days in the Caribbean, by late Tuesday - despite earnest searches by police and soldiers - not a single death had been recorded in Mexico.

Dean, weakened over land, is forecast to regain strength as it passes over the Gulf of Campeche and onto Mexico's mainland today. At 10 p.m. EDT Tuesday, the center of Dean was near latitude 19.9 N and longitude 93 W, or 215 miles east-northeast of Veracruz. It had winds of 80 mph and was moving west at 18 mph.

Threat to oil fields

Today, the storm is expected to deliver winds in excess of 100 mph somewhere between two of the country's most important port cities: Tampico and Veracruz. It is also expected to pass through Mexico's richest offshore oil fields and could veer close to the aging Laguna Verde nuclear plant. Hundreds of buses have been placed on alert in the event of radiation leaks.

"Here in Veracruz, we're blessed by God," Jorge Ortiz, a retired airline worker, said Tuesday while municipal crews filled sandbags a few steps away. "They always say the storms are going to get us, but we are always safe."

Ortiz was buoyed by reports from the Yucatan, as were his friends and neighbors, who seemed to be doing little to prepare for the oncoming storm. Restaurant workers crowded around television sets watching swirling graphics and cheering.

"It's down to a Category 1!" Gabriel Canales yelled across the floor of his bayside seafood restaurant, El Varadero.

The Yucatan's good fortune seemed to affirm the fierce confidence of Mayan villagers, most of whom refused to leave their thatched-roof shacks before the storm. Some wielded machetes as they met evacuation crews sent to about 100 villages near Felipe Carrillo Puerto.

Many villagers fled to secret caves that according to Mayan lore are immune to hurricanes and floods.

Others declared "that God had designated that they not leave," said Ligia Arana, a state legislator from Quintana Roo state in the eastern Yucatan.

" 'If we're going to die, that is a matter for our God,' " Arana recalled villagers saying.

Dean made landfall at 4:30 a.m. in Costa Maya, a cruise ship port near Chetumal, a city close to the Belize border that suffered some of the worst street flooding and building damage in the area.

Officials at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm registered the third lowest pressure at landfall - a measure that indicates the intensity of the storm - ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, trailing only Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 and an unnamed storm in 1935.

Belize loses electricity

The Federal Electricity Commission said 90,000 customers remained without power by midday.

Electricity was also out to most of Belize, where no deaths or major injuries were reported.

So far, damage estimates for Dean range from $750,000 to $3-billion in the Caribbean. AIR Worldwide, a risk management firm, estimated Tuesday that insured losses in Mexico from Dean are unlikely to exceed $400-million.

All weekend, Caribbean islands were bracing for cataclysmic direct hits that never came. First, on Saturday, Jamaica was largely spared by Dean. Then, on Sunday, the Cayman Islands escaped a direct blow.

The hurricane caused scattered mudslides and destroyed flimsy homes in Jamaica, which was hit by Dean's strong outer bands.

The threat posed by the storm was enough to send shivers across Mexico.

The huge, government-owned oil platforms off the Yucatan's western peninsula were shut down before Dean's arrival, sapping Mexico of revenue from 2.7-million barrels of oil and 2.6-billion cubic feet of natural gas a day.

More than 40,000 tourists fled resorts in Cancun, Playa del Carmen and other Mayan Riviera cities.

And President Felipe Calderon cut short a summit in Quebec with President Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to tour hurricane zones.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Category 5 storms

Here are Atlantic hurricanes that made landfall as Category 5, since records began in 1886:

Tuesday: Hurricane Dean; near Majahual, Mexico; at least 13 deaths.

Sept. 14, 1988: Hurricane Gilbert; Cancun, Mexico; 327 deaths.

Sept. 9, 1971: Hurricane Edith; Nicaragua; 30 deaths.

Aug. 17, 1969: Hurricane Camille; Mississippi; 256 deaths.

Sept. 28, 1955: Hurricane Janet; Chetumal, Mexico; more than 600 deaths.

Sept. 16, 1947: Unnamed; Bahamas; 51 deaths.

Sept. 3, 1935: Labor Day Hurricane; Florida Keys; 408 deaths.

Sept. 5, 1932: Unnamed; Bahamas; deaths not recorded.

Sept. 13, 1928: San Felipe-Okeechobee Hurricane; Puerto Rico; 2,166 deaths.

Source: National Climatic Data Center via Associated Press

[Last modified August 22, 2007, 01:19:53]

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