An "extremely dangerous" hurricane bore down Tuesday on Mexico's Caribbean coast, where the military was mobilized and tens of thousands of tourists were evacuated from hotels in top beach resorts.
Hurricane Delta rapidly intensified in the Caribbean to reach Category 4 status, the second-highest, and was on course to hit the Yucatan Peninsula by early Wednesday, US forecasters said.
Delta is expected to be an "extremely dangerous hurricane" when it makes landfall, bringing "life-threatening storm surge," destructive waves, extreme winds and the risk of significant flash flooding, according to the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC).
Mexico's Riviera Maya coast is home to major tourist resort towns including Cancun, although the number of visitors has plummeted because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit Mexico hard.
Hotel guests in Cancun and other resort areas were being moved to emergency shelters, while residents were also being transferred to safe locations.
"Although we've been living in Cancun for five years, it's our first hurricane, and the truth is that we're very nervous," said Ana Gabriela Gaeta.
By nightfall, Cancun's streets were mostly empty, with shops closed and windows covered by wooden sheets or crossed with adhesive tape to try to prevent them from shattering, according to AFP reporters.
More than 40,000 tourists in the resorts of Cancun, Puerto Morelos and Isla Mujeres were evacuated, the head of the area's hotel association, Roberto Cintron, told AFP.
Most were Mexicans, but they also included foreigners, notably from the United States.
In Cancun alone, more than 160 shelters were set up.
The authorities said the emergency shelters had been sanitized to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 81,000 people in Mexico and battered the key tourism industry.
"To prevent the spread of Covid-19, the same measures have been taken in the shelters as in hotels, such as the use of gel and face masks," said Cintron.
Maria Alexandra Gonzalez, a 34-year-old tourist from Costa Rica, boarded a bus with a large suitcase and a hat that she never used due to the relentless rain.
"We've not had much sun. It's a pity. We haven't been able to go out to see other places," she said.
Soldiers wearing masks and face shields were seen preparing to deploy for relief efforts.
"The order has been given to mobilize up to 5,000 troops with all the necessary equipment to protect the population," President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told reporters.
By late Tuesday, the hurricane had weakened slightly but was still packing maximum sustained winds of around 130 miles (215 kilometers) per hour, according to the NHC.
It was located about 135 miles southeast of the holiday island of Cozumel, just off the Yucatan Peninsula.
The Cancun and Cozumel airports were ordered to close, and non-essential activities in the state of Quintana Roo were suspended.
Quintana Roo governor Carlos Joaquin said the state was expected to feel the "full force" of the storm from midnight (0500 GMT).
People living in the area stocked up on food, drinking water and wooden boards to protect their homes as the storm approached.
"We're rushing to get wood for the windows. We only learned this morning that the hurricane was coming here," said Laura Mendez, a 54-year-old in Cancun.
Fishermen hauled their boats ashore to prevent them being swept away.
Delta is forecast to bring heavy rainfall and floods to parts of the southeastern United States later this week, according to the NHC.
Delta is the 26th named storm of an unusually active Atlantic hurricane season.
Over the weekend, six people died and thousands were forced from their homes as Tropical Storm Gamma triggered floods and landslides in southeastern Mexico.
In September, meteorologists were forced to break out the Greek alphabet to name Atlantic storms for only the second time ever, after the 2020 hurricane season blew through their usual list, ending on Tropical Storm Wilfred.