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Weakened Hurricane Sweeps Into Baja

August 25, 2003

LA PAZ, Mexico (AP) _ Authorities struggled to evacuate people as Hurricane Ignacio roared along the coast of Baja California, bending palm tress with winds topping 90 mph and lashing resorts with sheets of rain.

Authorities closed all ports in the state Sunday and worked to convince residents of low-lying shanty towns to move into dozens of improvised shelters set up in schools.

``If they won’t leave, we’ll ask the army to go in and get them out of their houses,″ said Baja California Sur Gov. Leonel Cota. ``We have to evacuate them for their own good.″

The hurricane weakened slightly but continued close to land, and Cota announced the evacuation of about 6,000 people in low-lying areas in La Paz, 50 miles north of Cabo San Lucas, and smaller communities further south.

State officials said one coastal highway had been cut off by flooding and a few palapas, or beach huts, had been destroyed, but they called the damage minor. They were concerned most about shantytowns of cardboard shacks built practically in riverbeds, like the hamlet of Agua Escondida on the outskirts of La Paz.

Most residents of Agua Escondida ignored the police cars rolling through the rain-drenched dirt roads of the hamlet, shouting warnings over loudspeakers for residents to leave homes cobbled together from packing crates, wood and cardboard.

Rather, such communities hunkered down together. A dozen people gathered on the ground floor in Juan Lopez’ food store _ one of the only solid two-story buildings in Agua Escondida. A dozen more were expected, as Lopez’ wife, Maria Elena Armendariz, prepared to feed them all.

``We’ve been here for 24 years,″ Armendariz said, ``and we’re not leaving now.″

Small fishing boats were pulled out of the water and moored to palm trees around La Paz. Larger boats were either tied up to docks or headed out to sea to ride out the storm.

The hurricane bypassed the resort city of Cabo San Lucas, known for its deep sea fishing, golf courses and a famous arch-shaped rock formation located off its main bay.

The hurricane’s center remained over the gulf Sunday evening, as Ignacio drifted slowly north along the eastern edge of the Baja California peninsula at speeds of 3 mph.

Hurricane-force winds extended out up to 25 miles from the center, and tropical-storm force winds extended out up to 70 miles, buffeting the peninsula with wind and rain.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said rainfall of up to 16 inches could cause life-threatening flash flooding and mud slides.

Shopkeepers in La Paz taped up windows, and some residents took the threat seriously and went to the improvised shelters.

Martin Cruz, a 33-year-old construction worker, left his house in the hamlet of Progreso with daughters Isabel, 5, Reina, 8, and wife, Angela. They took shelter in a university, where evacuees stretched out across the floor on blankets.

``We left as soon as we heard the warnings,″ Cruz said. ``When Hurricane Juliette came through (in 2001), it swept away my house. So we know to take it seriously.″

Flo and Jim Rhodes, a couple from Scottsdale, Ariz., touring the Mexican coast, tied their motor yacht, Inspiration, to a dock as the wind picked up and rain started to fall on the La Paz marina.

``A lot of people tied up their boats and said they were going to hotels″ to wait out the storm, Flo Rhodes said.

The couple stocked up on supplies and vowed to weather the storm on their boat.

``We’re going to ride it out right here,″ said Jim Rhodes.

Back on land, residents of Agua Escondida prepared for a watchful night, waiting to battle with rising waters _ or looters.

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