Fri, Aug 24, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Hurricane Dean slams mountains in central Mexico

NO CASUALTIES The National Hurricane Center downgraded the storm to a tropical depression and predicted it would have dissipated by yesterday


A weakening Hurricane Dean dumped heavy rains across central Mexico, drenching mudslide-prone mountains as it pushed its way inland after slamming into the nation's Gulf Coast.

In the storm-lashed city of Poza Rica, neighbors banded together to clear the streets of fallen trees with axes and machetes, while workers began reconnecting downed power lines. Dean killed 20 people in the Caribbean but there were no reported deaths so far in Mexico.

"We have emerged in good shape because of our organization, because of our precautions," said Veracruz Governor Fidel Herrera, while touring hurricane-battered coastal towns. "Now we enter the difficult phase of reconstruction and aid."

The US National Hurricane Center in Miami downgraded Dean to a tropical depression late on Wednesday and predicted it would have dissipated yesterday as it passed over Mexico's high mountains. But with up to 51cm of rain expected to fall, authorities worried there could still be floods or mudslides.

The mountain ranges near Mexico's coast are dotted with villages connected by precarious roads and susceptible to disaster. A rainstorm in 1999 caused floods that killed at least 350 people.

Dean came ashore earlier on Wednesday with top sustained winds of 160kph. Its center hit the tourism and fishing town of Tecolutla. The storm's hurricane-force winds lashed at a 100km stretch of the Mexican coast in Veracruz state.

As it pushed inland, Poza Rica, located 48km from Tecolutla, became the area's command center, and hundreds of people remained in shelters there late on Wednesday.

Maria Patricia Perez, a 40-year-old merchant in Poza Rica, had the tin roof ripped completely off her house.

"We were afraid it would knock down everything," she said.

Exhausted residents described helping one another battle Dean's rains and winds.

Shopkeeper Joel Cruz's house was left without electricity or telephone lines after a 30-year-old pine tree gave way, but it could have been worse.

Amid the howling winds, his neighbors helped him tie ropes around the tree and they were able to direct its fall away from his home. They also managed to move two cars away just before the giant tree came down.

"It was an adventure we survived," the 30-year-old Cruz said.

Late on Wednesday, Poza Rica residents took stock of the damage -- and agreed it could have been much worse.

"A lot of homes were left without roofs," said Mariano Gutierrez, head of Civil Defense in Poza Rica. "Many trees fell on public streets and on houses. There are many fallen signs. But so far, thank God, we don't have anything serious."

At 10pm local time, Dean was about 150km northwest of Mexico City and was heading westward at near 34kpm.

Dean hit the mainland as a Category 2 storm after regaining some of the force it unleashed on the Yucatan. Its first strike on the peninsula on Tuesday as a Category 5 tempest with 265kph winds was the third most intense Atlantic hurricane ever to make landfall.

Mexico had suspended offshore oil production and shut down its only nuclear power plant as tens of thousands headed for higher ground. The state oil company said there was no known damage to any of its production facilities on shore or in the Gulf of Mexico.

Producers of corn and sugar cane likely suffered heavy losses in Veracruz, a key agricultural state. Coffee plantations at higher elevations also were threatened by the heavy rains, industry officials said.

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