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September 2, 2009

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Mexican exodus as hurricane hits

TOURISTS fled resorts at the tip of the Baja California Peninsula as Hurricane Jimena roared their way yesterday, but many slum dwellers concerned about looting refused to leave their imperiled shanties.

Jimena, a Category 4 hurricane with winds of nearly 230 kilometers per hour, may rake the region of harsh desert fringed with picturesque beaches and fishing villages.

Police, firefighters and navy personnel drove through shantytowns, trying to persuade about 10,000 people in the Los Cabos area 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 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.

While the storm's eye was forecast to pass west and north of the city, another 20,000 were expected to evacuate elsewhere in the peninsula. Schools, many ports and most businesses were closed.

Rescue workers from the Red Cross and the Mexican military prepared for post-hurricane disaster relief, and two Mexican army Hercules aircraft loaded with medical supplies arrived.

Children ran through strong gusts of wind yesterday waving pieces of paper and trash bags under bands of intermittent rain. Forecasters expect the hurricane to leave between 13 and 26 centimeters of rain in Baja, but already the dry stream beds had turned into gushing torrents.

Hank and Maureen Butt, from Los Gatos, California, snapped photos outside their Cab San Lucas Hotel, enjoying the driving winds.

"The waves have been great," said Maureen Butt.

"I think we're going to be out of harm's way as far as major damage," her husband said. "We're in a very good structure here."

In a nearby shantytown, Marco Nina, 24, a bricklayer, warily eyed a growing stream that rushed past his plywood and sheet metal home.

"We are here with our nerves on edge," he said. "If this hits, the roof is not going to hold. Other storms have passed but not this strong."

Many tourists rushed to leave Los Cabos, the Mexican vacation town that is a playground for Hollywood stars where timeshares and condominiums dot the coast.

Hotels, which ordinarily have low occupancy this time of year, reported just a 25-percent occupancy rate. The local hotel association estimated 7,000 tourists were left in Los Cabos, a town of 58,000 residents.

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


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