Tourists scramble to avoid Mitch's wrath

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NEW YORK -- As Hurricane Mitch stalled Wednesday in the northwest Caribbean, tourists scrambled to leave resort areas on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula in anticipation of the storm's arrival.

Thousands of tourists in Cancun, Mexico, cut their vacations short this week to avoid a possible confrontation with the storm. Officials in Cancun implemented emergency plans and were helping vacationers wishing to return home secure flights. Tourists formed long lines at the Cancun Airport, which remained open as of late Wednesday.

Roughly 36,000 passengers left Cancun on scheduled and charter flights between Oct. 25 and Oct. 28, and 21,000 passengers arrived, according to Rafael Lara Lara, Mayor of Cancun and President of the Municipality of Civil Protection Committee. Eleven additional flights were added to accommodate visitors who chose to leave, while some carriers canceled flights, according to Lara Lara.

Continental canceled a flight from Newark, and American Airlines cut two flights from Miami and two flights from Dallas but was using a larger aircraft on another route to accommodate passengers inconvenienced by the cancellations.

Tourists on the neighboring island of Cozumel also were not taking any chances with Hurricane Mitch. "The island looks empty. Many people have left since the beginning of the week," said Armando Garcia, general manager of Presidente Inter-Continental and secretary of the Fondos Mixtos promotion council in Cozumel. Garcia said occupancy at his hotel dropped from 60% to 10% during the first few days the hurricane first posed a potential threat to the destination.

The Cozumel airport remained open at press time, with flights operating as scheduled and additional flights added to evacuate visitors wishing to return home, he said. Ferry service between Cozumel and Playa del Carmen on the Riviera Maya south of Cancun was canceled until the storm moved away from the area.

Officials in Cozumel also were taking precautions for visitors who remained by designating shelters and evacuation routes, as well as ensuring that hotels and stores stocked up on supplies, Garcia added.

Honduras and other regions in Central America were pounded with rainfall of up to 25 inches. Flash floods and mudslides are expected to severely damage tourist properties, but specific incidents could not confirmed.

In Belize, stores and banks in Belize City were closed, and most residents evacuated to higher ground.

The Bay Islands of Guanaja, Roatan and Utila off Honduras have taken the brunt of high winds and rain from Hurricane Mitch. Guanaja has been the first and worst hit of the islands, with extensive property damage, according to local sources.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the hurricane was inching west approximately 30 miles off the coast of Honduras, but it was unclear whether it would head toward Mexico. It lost power but still packed winds of almost 115 miles per hour. A hurricane warning remained in effect for the Yucatan Peninsula, from Cabo Catoche southward, as well as for the Caribbean coast of Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. The National Hurricane Center said Mitch is likely to remain a threat to the northwestern Caribbean for the next two days.

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