Thousands hunker down in shelters as 'highly dangerous' Hurricane Odile hits Mexico resorts

Waves pound the beach in Acapulco as Hurricane Odile churns far off shore. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Waves pound the beach in Acapulco as Hurricane Odile churns far off shore. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

CABO SAN LUCAS, Mexico (AFP) - Thousands of tourists and locals in Mexico hunkered down in luxury hotels converted into shelters on Monday after Hurricane Odile crashed into Los Cabos resorts in the north-west, taking down trees with powerful winds.

The "dangerous" hurricane, a category three storm on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale, packed 205 kmh winds when it made landfall near Cabo San Lucas in late on Sunday, according to the United States National Hurricane Centre (NHC). Hurricane-force winds spread northwards as the eye of the storm moved over the southern portion of the Baja California peninsula, the NHC said.

At 6am, Odile was packing winds of 195 kmh as it moved north-north-west at 28 kmh. The storm took down trees, power lines and roof tiles as it crashed into the Baja California peninsula, said National Civil Protection coordinator Luis Felipe Puente.

Forecasters warned that heavy rains - up to 46cm in some areas - could produce life-threatening floods and mudslides. "There was no light here, and we were completely in the dark," said Mr Wenseslao Petit, director of civil protection of Los Cabo located on the tip of the Baja California Sur peninsula.

Some 26,000 foreign tourists and another 4,000 Mexicans were staying in 18 hotels converted into temporary shelters, officials said.

The deep blue sea grew fiercely turbulent, gray and foamy.

"It took us by surprise. The sea is rough. I think this is going to get very ugly," Mr Steve Clement, a surfer from Hawaii, told AFP.

Some 7,000 residents were evacuated from low-lying areas and took refuge in shelters or with relatives, Felipe Puente told Foro television.

Operations at Los Cabos International Airport were suspended.

The authorities cut power in Cabo San Lucas to prevent electrocutions, while officials said schools would close on Monday and independence day festivities would be called off.

Hundreds of troops were deployed to help the population.

"The tourists are not panicking," said Mr Daniel Manzini, assistant manager at the Hyatt Place hotel in San Jose del Cabo, which was nearly full. "The hotel is safe and can be converted into a shelter."

Mr Gordon Peter, a 65-year-old US tourist, had been in Los Cabos for a week when his flight home was cancelled on Sunday.

"I'm not afraid but I want to go home," he said. "I'll spend the night in the lobby of my hotel. I could not find another hotel room."

The shelters were ready to receive tens of thousands of people.

"My house has a tin roof. We are left to spend this night here, and God knowns how many more," mother of six Fermina Gonzales said while nursing her youngest at a primary school-turned-makeshift shelter.

About 150 people came to the shelter, where they were assisted by members of the Navy and Red Cross.

"We do not know if there will be room for everyone," said doctor Benjamin Anaya, while reading the first of four aid kits.

Outside, palm trees and highway signs were bent by the wind, while power lines swayed dangerously near the asphalt.

The tourist area was largely in the dark due to power outages.

The hurricane had grown to category four strength earlier in the day before weakening, and little change in strength was expected following fears it could grow even bigger.

It was moving north-north-west at 28 kmh.

Calling Odile a "highly dangerous" hurricane, National Water Commission director David Korenfeld said a weather alert was issued for the entire peninsula for at least the next 24 hours.

After landfall, the hurricane was expected to gradually weaken as it moves over or along Baja California's coast through Tuesday.

The hurricane was expected to produce a dangerous storm surge, with large destructive waves, which could produce significant coastal flooding in parts of Baja California.

A total of 15cm to 30cm of rainfall were predicted in the peninsula and were likely to spark "life-threatening flash floods and mudslides", forecasters said.

The hurricane hit the Pacific coast around the one-year anniversary of a twin tropical storm battering on both coasts that left 157 people dead.