Tourists fleeing Hurricane Rina crowded Cancun's airport Wednesday even as the cyclone lost some of its punch on a course for Mexico's resort-studded Caribbean coast.
Authorities evacuated some fishing communities and closed schools along the coast of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, and NASA cut short an undersea laboratory mission near Key Largo, Florida, bringing the crew back to land.
Rina is forecast to remain a hurricane as it sweeps along Mexico's most popular tourist destinations — Cancun, Cozumel and the Riviera Maya — on Thursday, though forecasters predicted it would continue to weaken.
Rina's maximum sustained winds dropped to 135 km/h Wednesday afternoon, down from 175 km/h earlier in the day. It was about 225 kilometres south-southeast of the island of Cozumel, and was moving to the northwest at about 9 km/h.
Lines snaked to the ticket counters in the crowded Cancun airport as jumbo airliners headed to Canada and Europe waited in pouring rain. Many travellers said they had already scheduled to leave Wednesday. But Janet Gallo, 41, of New York City decided to cut short her five-day trip to Playa del Carmen.
"At the hotel, they told us they would make a decision whether to evacuate later today, but we didn't want to wait. We would rather be home when it hits," Gallo said.
In Cancun, 13 flights had already been canceled Wednesday, Cancun airport commander Cuauhtemoc Rivera said.
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 atoll of Banco Chinchorro on Tuesday.
Schools closed along coast
Luh McDevitt, 56, a furniture and interior designer in Cozumel, said her family was fitting hurricane shutters to the house and securing furniture.
"I am not really scared," said the Cincinnati, Ohio, native who has lived in Cozumel since 2000. "Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was a Category 5. The worst part of the hurricane is after. We didn't have electric in our house for three weeks."
Jorge Arturo Cruz, spokesman for the education department in Quintana Roo state, said schools were closed in communities along the coast and in Cozumel in anticipation of the storm.
The Mexican government also announced it is sending nearly 2,400 electrical workers, plus cranes, vehicles and generators to repair and maintain services as quickly as possible after the storm.
Soldiers, marines and state police had 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.
Tourists fleeing Cozumel
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.
An estimated 10,000 tourists had left by Wednesday night, Gonzalez Hernandez said.
There were only about 1,719 tourists in Cozumel, and many of them were leaving, he said.
Quintana Roo Gov. Roberto Borge Angulo ordered the evacuation of all 2,000 residents in Isla Holbox and of 300 tourists staying there.
At least eight cruise ships were changing itineraries away from the storm's path, said Carnival Cruise Lines spokesman Vance Gulliksen.
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.
A hurricane warning is in effect for the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula from north of Punta Gruesa to Cancun.
The projected track shows it curving east toward Cuba and the Straits of Florida by early next week, though the Hurricane Center cautioned "there is great uncertainty as to where Rina will be located by the weekend."