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Hurricane Ernesto 2012 Gains Strength, Heads For Mexico-Belize Border

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HURRICANE ERNESTO
This NOAA satellite image taken Tuesday, August 07, 2012 at 10:45 AM EDT shows Hurricane Ernesto just east of the Yucatan Peninsula. In the eastern Caribbean Sea, a tropical wave is generating clouds with showers and thunderstorms. (AP PHOTO/WEATHER UNDERGROUND) | AP

CHETUMAL, Mexico — Hurricane Ernesto closed in on Mexico's Caribbean coast near the border with Belize late Tuesday, its threat of damaging wind and rain causing hundreds of tourists to leave beach resorts and fishermen to abandon low-lying villages.

Ernesto, which started the day as a tropical storm, had sustained winds of 85 mph (140 kph) as it passed over the Banco Chinchorro Islands about 24 miles (40 kilometers) from a sparsely populated coastal region of the Yucatan Peninsula. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the storm was moving west at 15 mph (24 kph).

The nearest city to its projected path was Chetumal, capital of Quintana Roo state. Authorities earlier moved more than 1,300 tourists from resorts in Mahuahal, Balacar and other spots to Chetumal, a bayside city that was expected to see less rain and wind than the coast.

In the city of Tulum to the north, some 6,000 tourists were sheltering in hotels away from the beach and authorities said the structures were strong enough to qualify as storm shelters.

Luana Antonicelli, a 23-year-old tourist from Melbourne, Australia, traveling with her 20-year-old brother, said they left their beachfront cabana surrounded by tropical jungle and decided to spend the night at the Hotel Tulum, a 20-room, one-story building about two miles (three kilometers) inland.

"The people at our hotel told us to come into town because it's too dangerous to stay there," Antonicelli said.

She said most people at the Hotel Tulum were hunkering down inside their rooms even though it was only raining lightly Tuesday night. Hotel workers were distributing candles even though they still had electricity.

"It's a bit annoying because I want to be on the beach, but these things happen," Antonicelli said, adding that she and her brother decided to stay outdoors as much as possible. "I see it as an adventure."

Authorities also prepared two kindergartens in Tulum as shelters for up to 220 people, but only 20 people had showed up by Tuesday afternoon at one.

Cruz Garcia, a tourist guide, came to the shelter with his wife from Punta Allen, a low-lying coastal settlement.

"To be over there is a risk because the tide rises and there could be a disaster," Garcia said, adding that he twice went through strong hurricanes while living in the neighboring state of Campeche.

Soldiers and police evacuated all 600 residents of Punta Allen, and authorities were preparing for the evacuation of people from other low-lying coastal settlements, said Luis Gamboa of Quintana Roo's Civil Protection office.

Two cruises ships scheduled to dock on the Riviera Maya put off their arrival.

The heart of the storm was keeping to the south of the big resort areas of Cancun and the Riviera Maya, though strong rain and winds were possible in those areas. Officials prepared shelters as a precaution.

Forecasters said that after moving ashore, Ernesto was expected to cross Yucatan by Wednesday evening and enter the southern Gulf of Mexico in an area dotted with offshore oil platforms owned by the state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos.

Its predicted course would then take it to Mexico's Gulf coast near the city of Veracruz, and the U.S. hurricane center said it might become a hurricane again just before reaching there around Thursday evening.

On its way to Yucatan, the storm swirled over open sea parallel to Honduras' northern coast, but officials there said the storm hadn't caused damage or injuries.

Mexican authorities warned of possible flooding in some of the region threatened by Ernesto, where swollen rivers in the past have swept away houses, livestock and people and collapsed mountainsides.

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Gilma formed in the Pacific Ocean about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) west of Manzanillo, Mexico, with winds of 40 mph (64 kph). The storm was not expected to threaten land.

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Associated Press writers Antonio Villegas in Tabasco, Mexico; Alberto Arce in Tegucigalpa, Honduras; and Luis Galeano in Managua, Nicaragua, contributed to this report.

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