BULL BAY, Jamaica -- Fishermen dragged skiffs to shore and surfers rode enormous waves as Hurricane Emily's winds strengthened yesterday to 155 miles per hour, passing south of Jamaica and on track to make a direct hit at Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
The Category 4 storm was on track to pass close to Grand Cayman Island overnight before smashing into the Yucatan Peninsula on its way to the Gulf of Mexico and possibly southern Texas this week. Dave Roberts, a meteorologist with the US National Hurricane Center in Miami, said it was the strongest storm to form this early in the Atlantic season since record keeping began in 1860.
Mexican officials launched the evacuation of 85,000 people yesterday across more than 100 miles of coastline, including the resorts of Tulum and Playa del Carmen, and ordered the relocation of 30,000 tourists in Cancun. The state oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, evacuated its platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.
Long lines choked the Cancun airport yesterday as tourists rushed to leave. Businesses boarded over and taped windows to protect them from shattering. One store hung a sign that said, ''Emily go away."
''The locals seem pretty nonchalant about it," said Becky Hart, 29, a teacher from Madera, Calif., as she waited to board a plane. ''But then at the hotel they started chopping down the coconuts from the trees and moving people from the top floors."
Emily's winds strengthened yesterday afternoon to nearly 155 miles per hour, and the storm could become a Category 5 hurricane -- the strongest storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale once sustained winds top 155 miles per hour, the hurricane center said.
Howling wind gusts kicked up waves 8 feet tall and bent palm trees in Kingston, Jamaica's capital, last night. Torrential rains drenched parts of Jamaica's south coast and began spreading over the Cayman Islands, the hurricane center said.
Jamaican officials sent buses to evacuate hundreds of residents in flood-prone communities along the southern coast, but all refused to leave, said Nadene Newsome, spokeswoman for Jamaica's emergency management office.