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Hurricane Beryl heads toward Mexico after leaving devastation in Jamaica and the Eastern Caribbean

By MARTÍN SILVA and JOHN MYERS JR. – Associated Press

TULUM, Mexico (AP) — After cutting a trail of destruction through the eastern Caribbean and claiming at least nine lives, Hurricane Beryl weakened Thursday as it moved over open water toward Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. From the earliest Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic, it strengthened to a Category 2 hurricane by afternoon.

Jack Beven, senior hurricane specialist at the US Hurricane Center, said: “Now that the storm is moving away from the Cayman Islands, the greatest immediate threat is landfall on the Yucatan Peninsula.”

The storm’s center was located about 345 kilometers east-southeast of Tulum, Mexico, on Thursday afternoon. It had maximum sustained winds of 175 km/h and was moving west-northwest at 31 km/h.

Beryl was expected to bring heavy rains and moderate winds to Mexico’s Caribbean coast before crossing the Yucatan and regaining strength in the Gulf of Mexico to strike northeastern Mexico for a second time.

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As winds began to blow across Tulum’s white-sand beaches Thursday afternoon, ATVs with megaphones rolled down the beach, telling people to move away. Tourists took photos of the increasing surf, but most left as Beryl was scheduled to make landfall south of Tulum early Friday.

In recent days, Beryl damaged or destroyed 95 percent of homes on two islands in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, capsized fishing boats in Barbados and ripped roofs off in Jamaica before thundering past the Cayman Islands early Thursday morning.

Emergency shelters have been set up on Mexico’s popular Caribbean coast, some small, remote coastal communities have been evacuated, and even sea turtle eggs have been removed from beaches threatened by the storm surge.

In Playa del Carmen, most stores were closed on Thursday and some boarded up their windows as tourists jogged by and some locals walked their dogs in the bright sunshine. In Tulum, authorities closed all stores and evacuated beachfront hotels.

Francisco Bencomo, general manager of the Umi hotel in Tulum, said all guests had left. “Under these conditions, we will be completely locked down,” he said, adding there are no plans to welcome guests back before July 10.

“We’ve turned off gas and electricity. We also have an emergency floor that two maintenance people will cordon off,” he said from the hotel. “We’ve put them in the room furthest from the beach and the windows.”

“I hope that the impact on the hotel is as minimal as possible, that the hurricane passes quickly through Tulum and that it is nothing serious,” he said.

Myriam Setra, a 34-year-old tourist from Dallas, Texas, was eating a sandwich on the beach on Thursday morning. Her flight home was scheduled for Friday, but Beryl had not persuaded her to leave early.

“I thought I’d rather stay in Mexico one more day than return to the U.S. two days early,” Setra said. “I thought we’d get the last rays of sunshine today. And then it’ll just be time to hunker down and stay inside until hopefully it’s over.”

The head of Mexico’s civil protection agency, Laura Velázquez, said Thursday that Beryl is expected to be a Category 1 hurricane when it hits a relatively uninhabited stretch of land south of Tulum early Friday.

But when Beryl reemerges in the Gulf of Mexico a day later, it is expected to regain hurricane strength and make landfall right on the Mexican-American border near Matamoros, she said. This area was already hit by Tropical Storm Alberto in June.

Velázquez said temporary shelters had been set up in schools and hotels, but efforts to evacuate some particularly vulnerable villages – such as Punta Allen, which sits on a narrow strip of land south of Tulum – had been only partially successful.

The worst of the damage from Beryl appeared to be behind it. Its eyewall brushed the south coast of Jamaica on Wednesday afternoon, and by Thursday morning telephone poles and trees blocked roads in Kingston.

Authorities confirmed that a young man died on Wednesday when he was swept into a sewer while trying to rescue a ball. A woman also died when a house collapsed on her.

Residents took advantage of a break in the rain to begin clearing debris.

Sixty-five percent of the island remains without electricity, water and telecommunications are limited. Government officials are currently assessing the damage, but this is hampered by a lack of communication, especially in the southern communities that have been most affected.

In the south-central community of Clarendon, residents tried to repair damaged roofs and clear fallen trees. Many roads in the area were partially blocked by fallen power and telecommunications poles.

Seymour, armed with a machete and helping others clear the rubble, was grateful that he and his neighbors were spared.

“I’m just grateful to be alive, even though Beryl destroyed many roofs and we have no water or light (electricity),” he said, declining to give his last name.

Cayman Islands Prime Minister Juliana O’Connor thanked residents and visitors on Thursday for contributing to the “collective calm” ahead of Beryl by adhering to storm protocols.

Michelle Forbes, head of the National Emergency Management Organization for St. Vincent and the Grenadines, said about 95 percent of homes in Mayreau and Union Island were damaged by Hurricane Beryl.

Three people were reportedly killed in Grenada and Carriacou, and another in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, authorities said. Three more deaths were reported in northern Venezuela, where four people are missing, authorities said.

In Grenada, one person died when a tree fell on a house, Environment Minister Kerryne James told the Associated Press.

The Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, has promised to rebuild the archipelago.

Myers reported from Kingston, Jamaica. Associated Press writers Renloy Trail in Kingston, Jamaica; Mark Stevenson, María Verza and Mariana Martínez Barba in Mexico City; Coral Murphy Marcos in San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Lucanus Ollivierre in Kingstown, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, contributed to this report.

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