LOS CABOS, Mexico – Emergency workers struggled to evacuate thousands of reluctant slum dwellers as extremely dangerous Hurricane Jimena approached Mexico's resort-studded Baja California Peninsula on Tuesday.
Jimena, just short of Category 5 status with winds of near 155 mph, could rake the harsh desert region fringed with picturesque beaches and fishing villages as a major storm by Tuesday evening
Police, firefighters and navy personnel drove through shantytowns, trying to persuade some 10,000 people to evacuate shacks made of plastic sheeting, wood, reeds and even blankets.
"For the safety of you and your family, board a vehicle or head to the nearest shelter," firefighter Ricardo Villalobos bellowed over a loudspeaker as his fire truck wound its way through the sand streets of Colonia Obrera, a slum built along a stream bed that regularly springs to life when a hurricane hits.
Asked how many people were paying attention, he noted wryly, "not many."
Many residents feared that their few possessions — a TV, radio or refrigerator — would be stolen if they left.
Jose Miguel Leyva, a cab driver, nailed another plastic sheet to his rickety wood framed shack, vowing to stick it out as long as he could.
"We're putting all we can into the house," Leyva said. "They told us to go to a shelter. If it gets bad maybe we will. We can go in my car."
Roberto Hernandez, a community organizer, said he and other activists had formed a security brigade to ride out the storm and watch over their neighbors' possessions. "A lot of times, people steal their furniture, or whatever they can find," Hernandez said.
But Miguel Angel Juarez, an unemployed iron worker, packed clothing and his countertop gas grill into the trunk of his car before taking his family to a shelter.
"I'm not staying here," he said, eyeing the streambed that runs a few feet from his front door. "They say that when it rains here, this becomes a river."
The government warned that those who refuse to evacuate would be forced to do so.
"We are going to start by inviting people to leave ... the moment will come when we will have to make it obligatory," said Garibaldo Romero, interior secretary for the municipal government.
After official hurricane warnings were broadcast, organizers of an international financial meeting scheduled for Cabo San Lucas this week decided to move their conference — including more than 170 representatives from 54 countries — to Mexico City.
"The meeting has been planned for two months and the meteorological conditions, by their very nature, are unpredictable," said Anthony Gooch, spokesman for the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information, sponsored by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Many tourists rushed to leave, leaving hotels with a 25 percent occupancy rate, according to the local hotel association. The group estimated 7,000 tourists were left in Los Cabos.
But on Cabos' famous beaches, some tourists were doing just the opposite, jumping into the Pacific to play in the hurricane's big waves.
Although city officials shut down the port, lifeguard Roman Dominguez with the Cabo San Lucas Fire Department said there's no feasible way to close a beach.
"We struggle a lot with surfers," he said. "They're looking for waves."
Lifeguards perched in a tower looked on Monday as two women, one with her boogie board, another on a surf board, paddled into pounding surf under cloudy skies.
Clay Hurst, 52, a fencing contractor from Malibu, California, and Ben Saltzman, 28, an emergency medical technician from Pacific Palisades, California, emerged from a swim in the 10-to-12-foot waves and pounding surf.
"We are waiting anxiously, wanting to be right in the middle of it," said Hurst, who said he has never seen a hurricane as powerful as Jimena.
"We were advised to leave, but we want to be here," he said. "I've always wanted to be in one ... a real bad one."
Saltzman echoed his friend's enthusiasm: "It's an adrenaline rush," he said.
On Monday evening, Jimena was a Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds near 155 mphand was moving northwest near 9 mph, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami reported. It was centered about 245 miles south of Cabo San Lucas.
Hurricanes reach Category 5 at 156 mph.
Farther out in the Pacific, Tropical Storm Kevin weakened to a tropical depression with top winds of 35 mph. It was centered 840 miles west-southwest of the Baja peninsula's southern tip.