Mexico trembles as Dean intensifies to Category 5

Hurricane Dean strenthened into a rare and monstrous Category 5 storm Monday night as it roared down on the coasts of Mexico and Belize.

Hurricane Dean strengthened into a rare and monstrous Category 5 storm Monday night as it roared down on the coasts of Mexico and Belize.

By 11 p.m. ET, Dean had sustained winds of 257 km/h and was centred about241 kilometres east of Chetumal, Mexico. The storm was forecast to make landfall there early Tuesday morning, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. Meteorologists warned of a potential storm surge offour tosix metres at the storm's centre, raising fears of flooding.

High waves crash into a beach near Kingston, Jamaica, on Sunday. ((Andres Leighton/ Associated Press))

Thousands of tourists fled the beaches of the Mayan Riviera on Monday as Dean roared towards the ancient ruins and modern oil installations of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Mexico's state oil company Petroleos de Mexico decided to evacuate all 14,000 workers and shut down production on the offshore rigs that extract most of the nation's oil in the southern Gulf of Mexico.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon said he would cut short a trip to Canada where he is meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"Given [the hurricane's] progression and dangerousness, I have decided to return to Mexico soon," Calderon said in Ottawa. "I'll personally oversee the aid effort in case of a disaster."

Hurricanes that reach Category 5 are in the highest classification of tropical cyclone and are considered to be the most catastrophic.

Earlier Monday, Dennis Feltgen of thehurricane centre told CBC News that Dean could cause "catastrophic damage"if itused the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico as fuel to become a Category 5 storm.

"It's just about as bad as it gets," Feltgen said.

Only three Category 5 stormshave ever hit the U.S. since record-keeping began.

Earlier, the storm battered Jamaica with heavy rains and winds up to 230 km/h, killing two people there even though it did not strike Jamaica with a direct hit. In all, Dean hasleft a trail of destruction across the Caribbean and has killed at least 12 people.

Tropical storm Erin kills 14

Elsewhere, tropical storm Erin wreaked havoc inOklahoma and Texas, where 14 people have died in floods.

The Jamaican government declared a month-long state of emergency as officials looked to restore power across much ofthe island and assess the extent of damage to homes and roads.

The first hurricane of the Atlantic season largely spared the neighbouring Cayman Islands from its fury on Monday after officials imposed a curfew and evacuated tourists from the British territory in anticipation of the storm.

A young boy huddles against the rain and wind in Kingston, Jamaica, on Sunday. ((Andres Leighton/Associated Press))

Although forecasters expected the Mexican resort city of Cancun to be spared a direct hit, officialswere evacuating hotelsand arranged for extra flights to help tens of thousands of tourists leave before Dean's arrival, which was forecast for Tuesday.

"We're leaving. You don't play around with nature," said Maclovio Manuel Kanul as he pulled equipment out of his beachfront fishing shack near Cancun.

"We still haven't been able to recover from Wilma and now this is coming."

Belize evacuates 6,000 from main tourist spot

Canadian Farrah Gosselin, who co-owns a restaurant in the resort town of Playa del Carmen, saidpeople who have decided to remain in the resort town, which is 68 kilometres south of Cancun, were busy boarding up windows and preparing for the hurricane.

"Everybody's really calm," she said, adding that there were even people swimming and windsurfing in the ocean Monday.

"When the winds pick up and the sky turns black, that's when I'll feel a little bit of fear," Gosselin said.

In Belize,6,000 people were ordered to leave the country'smain tourist resort, San Pedro on Ambergris Caye,and 500 or sowere ordered to leavenearby Caye Caulker,national emergency co-ordinator James Jan Mohammed said.

Authorities also evacuated Belize City's three hospitals and were moving high-risk patients to the inland capital, Belmopan. Belize City Mayor Zenaida Moya urged people to leave, saying shelters aren't strong enough to withstand a storm of Dean's size.

With files from the Associated Press