Hurricane Delta intensified into a Category 4 storm on Tuesday and was expected to remain “extremely dangerous” as it reaches Mexico by early Wednesday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
The storm, the ninth named hurricane of the season, was about 135 miles east-southeast of Cozumel, Mexico, the center said. As of Tuesday night, Delta had maximum sustained winds of nearly 130 miles per hour with higher gusts.
The government of Mexico had issued a hurricane warning from Tulum to Dzilam and Cozumel, the center said, and tropical storm warnings were in effect for a portion of western Cuba, Isle of Youth, Punta Herrero to Tulum, and Dzilam to Progreso. Government officials ordered nonessential businesses to close as emergency crews helped evacuate inhabitants from low-lying coastal areas to storm shelters.
“It’s ideal conditions for rapid intensification — warm water temperatures, negligible wind chill,” said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and spokesman for the National Hurricane Center. “This has turned into a very dangerous, very serious hurricane.”
The brunt of the storm will hit the Yucatán Peninsula first, he said.
Residents across the region scrambled on Tuesday to prepare for the storm’s arrival, stocking up on days’ worth of groceries, hardware materials and gasoline, and pulling boats from the water and moving them to higher ground.
Scores of hotels along the Caribbean coast, including popular tourist destinations like Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Tulum, were moving their guests to shelters.
“The most important thing is to take care of everyone’s life so that we don’t lose anybody,” said Carlos Joaquín, the governor of the state of Quintana Roo, where the hurricane was expected to make landfall early Wednesday.
The impact with the Yucatán Peninsula will most likely cause the storm to weaken, possibly to a Category 3 storm, Mr. Feltgen said. But the conditions are ideal for it to strengthen back to a Category 4 as it passes through the southern Gulf of Mexico and approaches the United States as a “major hurricane.”
Delta is expected to approach the northern Gulf Coast later this week. While the exact track of the storm remains uncertain, there is a risk of dangerous storm surge, wind and rainfall along the coast from Louisiana to the western portions of the Florida Panhandle beginning Thursday night or Friday.
“Folks there should make sure they have their hurricane plan in place, have their supplies and monitor the updates to the forecasts,” Mr. Feltgen said. “I know there’s a lot of hurricane weariness out there with Laura and Sally so fresh on everybody’s minds, but here we go again.”
The Hurricane Center recommended that people monitor forecasts frequently, as storms can quickly slow down, grow stronger or shift track, he said.
“As our coastal areas are still recovering from #HurricaneSally, another system, #HurricaneDelta, is making its way toward the Gulf Coast and could potentially have a significant impact on AL,” Ms. Ivey wrote on Twitter.
The storm passed southwest of the Cayman Islands on Tuesday and is forecast to move over the northeastern portion of the Yucatán Peninsula by early Wednesday. It is then expected to move over the southern Gulf of Mexico by Wednesday afternoon.
The storm is expected to strengthen over the next 48 hours, according to the center, and produce four to six inches of rain, with some isolated amounts up to 10 inches, across portions of the northern Yucatán Peninsula through the middle of the week.
This hurricane season has been one of the most active on record, experts said.
Last month, Mr. Feltgen described 2020 as “hyperactive” compared with the average hurricane season, which typically produces 12 named storms, including three that develop into major hurricanes.
In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted an above-normal season in the Atlantic, with as many as 19 named storms, with up to 10 that could become hurricanes. And as many as six of those could develop into Category 3, 4 or 5 hurricanes, it forecast.
In August, government scientists updated their outlook. “It’s shaping up to be one of the most active seasons on record,” Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service, said at the time.
Gerry Bell, the lead hurricane season forecaster with the climate prediction center of NOAA, said there could be 19 to 25 named storms by the time the season ends on Nov. 30. Of these, seven to 11 could be hurricanes, with winds of 74 miles per hour or higher, including three to six major ones.
Kirk Semple and Concepción de León contributed reporting.