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Hurricane stronger, heads for Mexico's Los Cabos

EXTREMELY dangerous Hurricane Jimena roared toward Mexico's resort-studded Baja California Peninsula yesterday, chasing away an international finance conference and prompting emergency workers to start evacuating thousands of people from shantytowns.

Jimena, with winds of near 155 mph (250 kph), is just short of Category 5 status - the top danger rating for a hurricane - and could rake the harsh desert region fringed with picturesque beaches and fishing villages by this evening, forecasters said. Heavy bands of intermittent rain moved across the resort town of Los Cabos yesterday evening.

Police, firefighters and navy personnel drove through shantytowns, trying to persuade some 10,000 people to evacuate shacks made of plastic sheeting, wood, reeds and even blankets.

"For the safety of you and your family, board a vehicle or head to the nearest shelter," firefighter Ricardo Villalobos bellowed over a loudspeaker as his fire truck wound its way through the sand streets of Colonia Obrera, a slum built along a stream bed that regularly springs to life when a hurricane hits.

Many residents ignored the order, fearful that their few possessions - a TV, radio or refrigerator - would be stolen if they left.

Jose Miguel Leyva, a cab driver, nailed another plastic sheet to his rickety wood framed shack, vowing to stick it out as long as he could.

"We're putting all we can into the house," Leyva said. "They told us to go to a shelter. If it gets bad maybe we will. We can go in my car."

But Miguel Angel Juarez, an unemployed iron worker, packed clothing and his countertop gas grill into the trunk of his car before taking his family to a shelter.

"I'm not staying here," he said, eyeing the streambed that runs a few feet from his front door. "They say that when it rains here, this becomes a river."

The government warned that those who refuse to evacuate would be forced to do so.

"We are going to start by inviting people to leave ... the moment will come when we will have to make it obligatory," said Garibaldo Romero, interior secretary for the municipal government.

After official hurricane warnings were broadcast, organizers of an international financial meeting scheduled for Cabo San Lucas this week decided to move their conference - including more than 170 representatives from 54 countries - to Mexico City.

"The meeting has been planned for two months and the meteorological conditions, by their very nature, are unpredictable," said Anthony Gooch, spokesman for the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information, sponsored by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Workers at the Cabo San Lucas marina nailed sheets of plywood on storefront windows while fishermen secured their boats ahead of Jimena. Hotels and restaurants gathered up umbrellas, tables, chairs, and anything else that might be blown away.

As rain started falling yesterday morning, Mitch Williams of Orange County, California, waited at the airport to fly home from his vacation.

"The hurricane can do a lot of damage if it hits at that strength," he said.

Williams said poorer residents who live in shacks are not well prepared. "It will wipe them out," he said. His advice for tourists was simple: "Get out."

But on Cabos' famous beaches, some tourists were doing just the opposite, jumping into the Pacific to play in the hurricane's big waves.

The local hotel association estimated that 7,000 tourists were left in Los Cabos. Hotels had a 25 percent occupancy rate, according to the association.

Although city officials shut down the port, lifeguard Roman Dominguez with the Cabo San Lucas Fire Department said there's no feasible way to close a beach.

"We struggle a lot with surfers," he said. "They're looking for waves."

Lifeguards perched in a tower looked yesterday as two women, one with her boogie board, another on a surf board, paddled into pounding surf under cloudy skies.

Clay Hurst, 52, a fencing contractor from Malibu, California, and Ben Saltzman, 28, an emergency medical technician from Pacific Palisades, California, emerged from a swim in the 10-to-12-foot (3-to-4-meter) waves and pounding surf.

"We are waiting anxiously, wanting to be right in the middle of it," said Hurst, who said he has never seen a hurricane as powerful as Jimena.

"We were advised to leave, but we want to be here," he said. "I've always wanted to be in one ... a real bad one."

Saltzman echoed his friend's enthusiasm: "It's an adrenaline rush," he said.

But Cabos San Lucas fishing boat captain Eleazar Unzon, a 30-year veteran of these waters, was more cautious.

"This is causing a lot of fear and concern," said Unzon, 58, as he and helpers pulled the 33-foot (10-meter) fishing boat "Alejandra" onto a trailer. "We're getting the boat out of the water before it hits, so we can rest easy at home."

Unzon acknowledged that big storms do have some benefits - he notes that they bring in the "big fish" coveted by sports fishermen such as marlin - but said, "I'm not going to expose my livelihood."

Tim Donnelly, 57, a boat captain originally from Washington, D.C., sat dockside after tying down the 105-foot (32-meter), two-masted wooden schooner "Sunderland," saying he expected the 140-year-old wooden boat to ride out the storm.

"We've never been hit by a storm of this category," he said. "I'll be shocked if we don't have any problems."

Yesterday evening, Jimena was a Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds near 155 mph (250 kph) and was moving northwest near 9 mph (15 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami reported. It was centered about 245 miles (394 kilometers) south of Cabo San Lucas.

Hurricanes reach Category 5 at 156 mph (250 kph).

Farther out in the Pacific, Tropical Storm Kevin weakened to a tropical depression with top winds of 35 mph (55 kph). It was centered 840 miles (1350 kilometers) west-southwest of the Baja peninsula's southern tip.


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