CABO SAN LUCAS, Mexico Powerful winds from Hurricane John slammed into the southern tip of Baja California today, forcing tourists to take shelter in luxury hotel ballrooms and local residents in vacant schoolhouses.
With top sustained winds of 110 mph, the eye of the Category 2 storm was churning near the tip of Baja and its outer edge was already being felt on land, forecasters said.
Bands of steady rain swelled normally dry stream beds and ran down some streets as the eye drew within about 50 miles tonight. John wasn t likely to affect the United States; cooler Pacific waters tend to diminish storms before they reach California.
Known for the rugged beauty of their unique desert-ocean landscapes, the two resort cities of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas on the southern tip of the Baja peninsula are studded with high-end golf courses. The resorts are extremely popular with sports fishermen and celebrities. Rooms at some of the higher end hotels go for more than $2,000 a night.
Today, thousands of tourists who couldn t get flights out prepared to ride out the storm.
Shauna O Leary and Sheree Bayeur, both from San Francisco, found themselves holed up in their hotel thinking of survival strategies.
We ve brought goggles, Bayeur quipped. We re good swimmers, so I think we ve got an advantage there.
That water wasn t that high a few minutes ago, said Dale Broomfield, 26, a nurse from Adelaide, Australia, who negotiated a makeshift plank bridge over water that rose up between his hotel and an adjoining convention hall-turned-shelter in Cabo San Lucas.
Nearby, Guadalupe Amezcua, a 50-year-old tourist from Mexico City, set up camp on one of many mattresses on the floor of the hall, where windowless rooms provided protection from wind.
This is like an adventure for us, but I ve learned now: never travel during hurricane season, Amezcua said as she folded her clothes.
We came for the sun and now look!
Miles away from the glittering coastal hotels, 46-year-old bricklayer Francisco Casas Perez sat outside a schoolroom where he and his 14-year-old son spent the night. They were evacuated from their tin-roofed shack in Tierra y Libertad, one of the squatters camps that dot the sandy flats around Cabo San Lucas.
We ve been asking God to not let it hit too hard, he said. We could lose all our possessions.
The Mexican Navy and police evacuated residents, sometimes forcibly, from Tierra y Libertad and other shantytowns, many of which are built next to usually dry riverbeds.
Casas Perez went voluntarily to the shelter, where people slept on thin pads stretched side-by-side over the concrete floor.
The hurricane is no game, especially where we are surrounded by water on all sides, he said.
Olga Lidia Aguilar, 32, was evacuated from her tar-paper shack in the shantytown of Lagunita.
We feel safer here, she said as she and her five children waited in line for free tuna salad and tortillas. Our house could just blow away in the wind.
Up to 8,000 tourists remained in Cabo San Lucas today; hundreds more foreigners are full-time residents. Most visitors are American.
As the storm approached, the Hotel Tesoro told guests they could stay in their rooms at their own risk, but suggested they go the hotel s shelter or hunker down in their bathrooms.
The towns shops and restaurants were almost all closed, many with their windows boarded up. Hotel workers stripped rooms of light fixtures and furniture, in case plate-glass windows shattered.
Officials closed the airport Thursday night, ending a mad scramble for last-minute flights, and driving out wasn t an option for many the one, narrow road north stretches 400 miles to Tijuana on the U.S. border. A tropical storm warning was in effect for the desolate middle stretch of the peninsula, a region dotted with American-owned vacation and retirement homes.
The National Hurricane Center warned that John could fuel storm surges of up to 5 feet above normal tide and bring 6 to 10 inches of rain, possibly causing life-threatening flash floods and mudslides over mountainous areas.
Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Kristy churned farther out in the Pacific Ocean today, with maximum sustained winds of 58 mph, and forecasters at the U.S. Hurricane Center in Miami said it could eventually be absorbed by John.
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NORFOLK, Va. Ernesto weakened to a tropical depression today, but the storm still packed enough punch to dump more than half a foot of rain, knock out power to more than 300,000 customers and force hundreds of people from their homes.
And it was far from finished. On the eve of the Labor Day weekend, the storm prompted flash flood watches for wide sections of Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and central New York.
Nobody is relaxing until long after the storm has passed, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said.
The storm was blamed for at least one traffic death in Virginia and one in North Carolina, where it swirled ashore late Thursday, a day after severe thunderstorms had already drenched the region.
More than 200 homes were evacuated in Richmond and about a dozen people had to leave their homes in coastal Poquoson, which is still recovering from Hurricane Isabel three years ago. About 50 homes on Chesapeake Bay s Northumberland County were also evacuated, Kaine said.
North Carolina got the heaviest initial rainfall, with more than 8 inches falling on the Wilmington area a record for the date. Parts of western Virginia got 6 inches by midmorning, and North Myrtle Beach, S.C., measured nearly 7 inches.
In Beaufort County, N.C., near the coast, about 1,500 families were under a mandatory evacuation order, and police went door to door early today in an area with poor drainage, said George Sullivan, director of the county Emergency Management Office.
In Virginia, utilities reported about 317,000 customers without power statewide.
The governors of North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, and the mayor of the District of Columbia, each declared a state of emergency because of the storm.
Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich said today he decided against a state of emergency because his state has been so dry.
Also today, a team of hurricane forecasters in Colorado lowered their expectations for the 2006 Atlantic season, predicting only five hurricanes instead of the seven previously forecast.
Ernesto s top sustained wind reached 70 mph, just 4 mph below hurricane strength, as it passed over land at Long Beach, N.C., just west of Cape Fear. Its sustained wind speed had dropped to 35 mph by midday today.
In South Florida, where Ernesto came ashore earlier in the week, several counties prepared to seek reimbursement from the federal government for millions of dollars spent in anticipation of storm damage that never happened.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said that without a federally declared disaster, there was no option for counties to be reimbursed for preparation costs. The only declared state of emergency was made by Gov. Jeb Bush.
At midday, Ernesto was centered about 80 miles west-southwest of Norfolk, Va., and moving north at nearly 14 mph. It was expected to continue its northward track into Pennsylvania and slow down.
At the Virginia Beach oceanfront, winds knocked down tents and portable toilets that had been set up for a music festival this weekend, and all shows today at the American Music Festival were canceled.
Winds gusted at about 60 mph in Hampton, Newport News and Poquoson, the National Weather Service said. Tractor-trailers and recreational vehicles were barred from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, and several ferries on eastern Virginia rivers closed.
On Richmond s north side, officials ordered residents of more than 200 homes in the Battery Park area to evacuate because the area flooded earlier this week.
The National Weather Service canceled flood warnings for rivers in the western part of the state, but the James River was likely to flood in the east.
Read more in later editions of The Blade and toledoblade.com
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