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30 years later, we remember Hurricane Gilberto

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Hurricane Gilberto in Yucatán Friday, Sept. 14, 1988. Photo: Facebook

Seven days after beginning as a storm on the other side of the Atlantic, Hurricane Gilberto was born in the eastern Caribbean, about 200 kilometers south of Puerto Rico. Many residents doubted it would whip up Yucatán, but it did just that on Sept. 14, 1988.

On the 30th anniversary of Hurricane Gilberto, or “Gilbert” to English-speakers, we present the New York Times’ front-page coverage of the devastation. 

Century’s Fiercest Storm Sweeps Yucatan

The strongest hurricane to hit the Western Hemisphere in this century slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico today with 23-foot waves and wind gusts of up to 218 miles an hour, devastating coastal cities and resorts and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.

Government officials in the two states hardest hit by the storm, Yucatan and Quintana Roo, said it was too early to give any estimate of the number of people killed or injured. They said that normal communications and transportation were not functioning and that they were relying on intermittent ham radio reports for information about coastal areas.

This was the awesome damage inflicted on Cancun beaches by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Photo: Houston Chronicle

The storm, designated Gilbert, hit Jamaica on Monday, leaving thousands of people homeless and at least 25 dead, then went back out to sea and passed 20 miles south of the Cayman Islands before reaching Mexico today.

Resorts Are Hard Hit

Among the areas most severely affected by the storm were the Caribbean resorts of Cancun and Cozumel, with their luxury oceanfront hotels and thousands of foreign tourists. The authorities said that tourists in both towns had been evacuated from hotels in beach areas and that some had been sent to inland towns such as Valladolid, Tizimin and Merida, capital of the state of Yucatan.

As the storm struck Mexico’s coast, people along the Gulf of Mexico coast from southern Texas to Louisiana began preparing in a mood of edgy, awed respect for the hurricane, which could arrive as early as Friday.

The Mexican Navy said it was seriously concerned about the safety of the 10,000 or so people who live on Isla de Mujeres, just off the coast of the peninsula near Cancun. Officials said that it had not been possible to evacuate island residents but that they believed there were sufficient hurricane shelters and other structures built to withstand storms to accommodate them.

Satellite images capture Hurricane Gilberto as it is about to swallow the Yucatán Peninsula. Photo: NOAA

‘A Super-Hurricane’

Early today, while the storm was bearing down on the Yucatan peninsula, Miguel Borge Martin, Governor of the state of Quintana Roo, described it as “a super-hurricane, the biggest we’ve ever seen.”

“No matter what path it takes, it is going to cause damage to the majority of the state,” he said.

Mexico’s National Weather Service said the full force of the hurricane began to be felt around daybreak. Government officials said roofs had been ripped off homes and other buildings, trees uprooted, docks destroyed, electrical power lines severed and communications towers toppled as the storm moved across the peninsula at a speed of about 15 miles an hour.

Late this afternoon, Lieut. Col. Salvador Macias, a spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense, said senior military officials who toured Cancun after the eye of the hurricane passed found many areas in the city inundated. He also said that Nichupte Lagoon, which separates Cancun from mainland Yucatan, “has overflowed.”

States of Alert Decreed

Water, electricity and telephone services to major urban areas in the peninsula are blocked, as are the majority of streets, Colonel Macias said. “This hurricane has caused a lot of damage,” he added.

States of alert of varying degrees were decreed in the southern states of Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco and Chiapas. Units of both the Mexican Army and Navy were being deployed throughout the day to help in evacuation and cleanup efforts and to prevent looting, the authorities said.

The Mexican Red Cross said its volunteers had evacuated more than 25,000 people from beach areas in Cancun and Cozumel, housing most of them in schools, hospitals and government buildings farther inland. But Felipe Castanon Gonzalez, director of operations for the Red Cross Disaster Committee, said that because communications with the Caribbean coast were broken at 9:30 P.M. on Tuesday it was impossible to determine what further aid was needed.

Mr. Castanon Gonzalez said sketchy information from the affected area indicated that two rivers had overflowed their banks north of Chetumal, capital of the state of Quintana Roo. Government officials there said Mr. Borge Martin had set out with a caravan of 20 buses and 500 volunteers carrying food, clothing and medicine to hard-hit zones, but that more aid would certainly be needed.

Areas Already Damaged

Officials said that relief efforts were likely to be hampered by the damage left by two hurricanes, designated Debby and Kristy, that swept through the area earlier this month. Those two storms knocked out bridges, blocked roads, destroyed crops and killed farm animals throughout southern Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula.

Farther south, in Central America, the damage Hurricane Gilbert left in its wake was not believed to be as severe as that in Mexico or the Caribbean, but authorities said aid would nevertheless be needed. Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala all reported deaths, mostly by drowning, and extensive damage to crops and animal herds. The Ambassador of Belize in Mexico, Atlay Digby Morales, said that there had been “no damage and no casualties” in his country, “only heavy rains.”

The Mexican state oil company, Pemex, said that it had closed all 146 of its oil drilling platforms in the Bay of Campeche, where two-thirds of the country’s oil production is concentrated. Evacuation of about 5,000 workers began Tuesday, and the company said it hoped to resume at least some production by the weekend.

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