NEW: Slight increase in speed is expected Thursday
Yucatan Peninsula residents advised not to let their guards down
The weather is favoring us," says operations director for state civil protection
A hurricane hunter aircraft finds Rina "significantly weakened"
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Tropical Storm Rina continued to weaken Thursday as it began affecting some of Mexico’s most popular beaches.
“We don’t expect them to get a major hurricane, but they are going to get a hurricane,” said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “They need to get their preparations done now; they cannot let their guard down at all.”
By Wednesday evening, tropical storm force winds were already evident along the east coast of Yucatan, Feltgen said. Those conditions are expected to spread northward during the night.
Rina will make landfall either along or on the northeast coast of the Yucatan as a hurricane sometime later Thursday, depending on whether it picks up forward speed overnight, officials said.
But it will not make landfall on U.S. soil, dying out instead over Cuba, Feltgen predicted. “In five days, we’ve got it as a tropical depression over western Cuba on its way down,” he said. “It’s just going to get sheared apart.”
“The weather is favoring us,” said Juan Gabriel Granados, operations director for Quintana Roo civil protection in Chetumal, about the storm’s weakened strength. “Everything is normal.” Quintana Roo includes the resort towns of Cancun and Cozumel.
Still, people from the islands of Holbox and Mujeres were being evacuated, he said. Most of another 50,000 coastal residents whose housing was considered “vulnerable” have moved inland to stay with relatives or friends, he said.
Alcohol sales were banned as of 7 p.m.; transportation to Cozumel had been banned since 5 p.m., he added.
“We¹re meeting every six hours with officials at the state and municipal levels to assess the situation,” he said.
As of 11 p.m. ET, the storm was packing maximum sustained winds near 85 mph (140 kph) with higher gusts and was centered about 140 miles (225 km) south of Cozumel, the National Hurricane Center said. Rina was expected to see a slight increase in speed Thursday.
A hurricane warning was in effect for the northeast coast of the Yucatan Peninsula from north of Punta Gruesa to San Felipe and a tropical storm warning was in effect for the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula from Chetumal to Punta Gruesa and for the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula west of San Felipe to Progreso.
“Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion in the warning area,” the hurricane center said.
The storm was expected to turn gradually northward and slightly increase its forward speed overnight and Thursday. Rina’s center will be near or over the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula on Thursday night and Friday, the center said.
Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 15 miles (30 km) from the center and tropical storm force winds extended outward up to 80 miles (130 km).
Rina will likely drop 8 to 16 inches of rain over the eastern Yucatan Peninsula and Cozumel through Friday, it said. A storm surge of as much as 2 to 4 feet above normal tide levels along the coast near and to the right of the track of the center is expected – accompanied by large waves, it said.
Its threat earlier in the day as nearly a Category 3 hurricane had prompted residents and tourists to make preparations to leave, and many tourists found themselves stranded when they could not find flights out of Cancun.
Joanne Andrews, 62, of Philadelphia, said she, her daughter and their two cousins had planned their trip to Cancun for a year, but the trip was not turning out as hoped. “We were upset,” she said. “We waited a long time to come here and we thought we were going to have fun.”
Earlier in the day, Cancun cab driver Salvador Coba Millan, 40, expressed concern that Rina could deal the local economy a body blow.
Hurricane Wilma in 2005, he recalled, “was a very big hurricane that stayed on top of us for three days.” Afterward, he said, “there was no work. Cancun was left in a very sad state. I remember that it took a year for Cancun to recover. There was no work for the first six months. People didn’t return until after a year later.”
Some tourists decided not to take any chances.
“We wanted to get out of there. … We were on vacation and just didn’t want to be stressed,” said Kathy Davis, 57, an American with a timeshare property in Cancun.
She said she and her husband celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary at the airport while waiting to catch a flight.
CNN’s Tom Watkins, Catherine E. Shoichet, Dana Ford and journalist Brisa Munoz of CNNMexico.com contributed to this report.