Hurricane Delta rapidly intensified on Tuesday, becoming a category 4 storm with 140mph winds, on course to hammer south-eastern Mexico and the US Gulf coast.
Delta is the earliest 25th named storm to form in the Atlantic, beating the old record of 15 November 2005, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.
The worst of the immediate impact was expected along the resort-studded north-eastern tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where hurricane conditions were expected on Tuesday night and landfall early on Wednesday.
Cuba’s western-most province and the Cayman Islands were under tropical storm warnings as Delta shifted west. It was expected to arrive with an extremely dangerous storm surge raising water levels by as much as 7ft to 11ft in the Yucatan, accompanied by large and dangerous waves and flash flooding inland.
The storm’s center was about 260 miles east-south-east of Cozumel, Mexico, moving west-north-west at 16mph. It was expected to regain category 4 status over the Gulf as it approached the US coast, where landfall around Friday would be followed by heavy rainfall across south-eastern states.
“While there is large uncertainty in the track and intensity forecasts, there is a significant risk of dangerous storm surge, wind and rainfall hazards along the coast from Louisiana to the western Florida Panhandle beginning Thursday night or Friday. Residents in these areas should ensure they have their hurricane plan in place and monitor updates to the forecast of Delta,” the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
In Alabama, Governor Kay Ivey signed a state of emergency. Beach communities on the Alabama coast are still clearing damage from Hurricane Sally, which made landfall on 16 September.
In Mexico, from Tulum to Cancun, tourism-dependent communities recently hit by Tropical Storm Gamma could bear the brunt.
In Cancun, long lines stretched at supermarkets, lumber yards and gas stations, under mostly sunny skies. Officials warned residents to have several days of water and food on hand.
Mexico began evacuating tourists and residents along the Riviera Maya. Quintana Roo governor Carlos Joaquin said buses were carrying people off Holbox Island and hotels in Cancun and Puerto Morelos were busing guests to government shelters. Some hotels with structures rated for major hurricanes were preparing to shelter guests in place.
Cancun mayor Mara Lezama Espinosa said the city had opened more shelters than usual to give people space in recognition of the Covid-19 pandemic. State tourism minister Marisol Vanegas said there were 40,900 tourists in all of Quintana Roo, a fraction of the usual number. The area’s economy was devastated by lockdown.
At the Moon Palace resort just south of Cancun, hundreds of guests were being moved into a shelter at the large exposition center. Bedding, food and entertainment were being provided until the hurricane passes, said Cessie Cerrato, public relations manager for Palace Resorts.
“It’s massive,” Cerrato said of the hall. “It’s super safe and further away from the water.” Given the coronavirus pandemic, the hall will allow safe distancing and face masks will be required.
The state ordered all non-essential businesses to close by 1pm and banned the sale of alcohol. Hurricane-strength winds were expected by Tuesday evening and landfall to occur near Puerto Morelos just south of Cancun between 1am and 2am Wednesday.
Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador said 5,000 federal troops and emergency personnel were being made available in Quintana Roo to aid in storm efforts. The state’s airports remained open but beaches were closed.
“I honestly don’t see much that will stop it until it reaches Yucatan, due to low vertical wind shear, high deep-layer moisture, and the very warm and deep waters of the north-western Caribbean,” US NHC forecaster Eric Blake said.