BULL BAY, Jamaica – Fishermen dragged skiffs to shore and surfers rode enormous waves as Hurricane Emily's winds strengthened Saturday to 155 mph, passing south of Jamaica and on track to make a direct hit at Mexico's Yucatan peninsula (search).
The Category 4 storm was on track to pass close to Grand Cayman Island (search) overnight before smashing into the Yucatan Peninsula on its way to the Gulf of Mexico and possibly southern Texas next week. Dave Roberts, a meteorologist with the U.S. 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 Saturday 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 (search).
In Mexico, long lines choked the Cancun airport on Saturday 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 see pretty nonchalant about it," said Becky Hart, 29, a school 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 Saturday afternoon to near 155 mph and the storm could at times become a Category 5 hurricane — the strongest storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale once sustained winds top 155 mph, the hurricane center said.
Howling wind gusts kicked up waves 8 feet tall and bent palm trees double in Kingston, Jamaica's capital, Saturday 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.
In the seaside fishing village of Port Royal, on a peninsula just south of Jamaica's capital, Kingston, storm-weary locals again boarded up windows and tied down metal roofs, just over a week after Hurricane Dennis sideswiped the island.
Many said they were staying put.
"Last week it was Dennis, now it's Emily. What's next, Franklin?" Gordon Murphy, 39, joked as his 2-year-old son played at his feet. "If I'm going to die, it's going to be right here."
Hurricane force winds extended up to 60 miles and tropical storm force winds extended up to 150 miles. The hurricane center warned the storm could dump up to 15 of rain over parts of Jamaica, which could produce flash floods and mudslides.
Emily was centered about 140 miles southwest of Montego Bay, Jamaica, and 195 miles southeast of Grand Cayman on Saturday afternoon. It was moving west-northwest near 18 mph.
If Emily remains on track, it's likely to strike land in the eastern Yucatan on Sunday night, lose some strength as it moves overland, then regain its dangerous energy in warm waters over the Gulf of Mexico, said Jack Beven, the hurricane specialist at the Miami-based center.
He said Emily was likely to make landfall again sometime Wednesday, anywhere from northeastern Mexico to southern Texas, but cautioned it was too early to make a precise prediction.
Emily has unleashed heavy surf, gusty winds and torrential rains across the Caribbean, hitting hard Thursday at Grenada even as the island was still recovering from the devastation of last year's Hurricane Ivan.
Grenada declared a national disaster Friday after Emily's winds ravaged hundreds of homes, destroyed crops and killed at least one man whose home was buried under a landslide.
Hurricane Dennis killed at least 25 people in Haiti and 16 in Cuba last week.
Last year, three catastrophic hurricanes — Frances, Ivan and Jeanne — tore through the Caribbean with a collective ferocity not seen in years, causing hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars in damage.
Forecasters have predicted up to 15 Atlantic tropical storms this year, including three to five major hurricanes. The hurricane season began June 1 and runs through Nov. 30.