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Image: Clouds over Cabo beach
Guillermo Arias  /  AP
The outer bands of Hurricane Jimena move over Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, on Monday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 8/31/2009 11:53:10 PM ET 2009-09-01T03:53:10

Extremely dangerous Hurricane Jimena roared toward Mexico's resort-studded Baja California Peninsula on Monday, prompting emergency workers to set up makeshift shelters and chasing away an international finance conference.

Jimena is just short of Category 5 status — the top danger rating for a hurricane — and could rake the harsh desert region fringed with picturesque beaches and fishing villages as a major storm by Tuesday evening, forecasters said. Heavy bands of intermittent rain moved across the resort town of Los Cabos on Monday evening.

Workers at the Cabo San Lucas marina nailed sheets of plywood on storefront windows while fishermen secured their boats ahead of Jimena, which was packing winds near 155 mph. Hotels and restaurants gathered up umbrellas, tables, chairs, and anything else that might be blown away.

At least 10,000 families were ordered to evacuate their homes in low-lying areas and shantytowns, said Apolinar Ledezma, the municipal public safety director.

The government said it would send out 200 military personnel and dozens of police in trucks to help people reach dozens of shelters. Authorities 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.

Poor at greatest risk
Brenda Munoz, who lost her home to a 2001 hurricane, was taking no chances.

"I remember when Hurricane Juliette hit with a lot of intensity. It flattened our home," Munoz said in the vacation town of Cabo San Lucas. This time, she said, "We're already prepared with food and everything so it won't catch us off guard."

As rain started falling Monday morning, Mitch Williams of Orange County, California, waited at the airport to fly home from his vacation.

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"The hurricane can do a lot of damage if it hits at that strength," he said.

Williams said poorer residents who live in shacks are not well prepared. "It will wipe them out," he said. His advice for tourists was simple: "Get out."

But on Cabos' famous beaches, some tourists were doing just the opposite, jumping into the Pacific to play in the hurricane's big waves.

The local hotel association estimated that 7,000 tourists were left in Los Cabos. Hotels had a 25 percent occupancy rate, according to the association.

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.

Some tourists want to be there
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."

Image: Satellite view of Jimena
NOAA via AP
Hurricane Jimena swirls off Mexico's Baja California on Monday morning in this satellite-based image.
Saltzman echoed his friend's enthusiasm: "It's an adrenaline rush," he said.

But Cabos San Lucas fishing boat captain Eleazar Unzon, a 30-year veteran of these waters, was more cautious.

"This is causing a lot of fear and concern," said Unzon, 58, as he and helpers pulled the 33-foot fishing boat "Alejandra" onto a trailer. "We're getting the boat out of the water before it hits, so we can rest easy at home."

Unzon acknowledged that big storms do have some benefits — he notes that they bring in the "big fish" coveted by sports fishermen such as marlin — but said, "I'm not going to expose my livelihood."

Tim Donnelly, 57, a boat captain originally from Washington, D.C., sat dockside after tying down the 105-foot, two-masted wooden schooner "Sunderland," saying he expected the 140-year-old wooden boat to ride out the storm.

"We've never been hit by a storm of this category," he said. "I'll be shocked if we don't have any problems."

On Monday evening, Jimena was a Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds near 155 mph and 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.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Baja braces for Hurricane Jimena

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