MERIDA, Mexico -- Hurricane Gilbert pounded the ancient Mayan ruins and emptied resort hotels of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula with winds that gusted to 200 mph Wednesday, then swept into the Gulf of Mexico and a feared rendezvous with the Texas coast.
Forecasters said a direct hit on Texas would cause 'catastrophic damage,' and NASA managers put off announcing a firm date for the expected late September launch of the shuttle Discovery in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in part because of fears the storm could affect mission control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, near Galveston Bay.
A hurricane watch was hoisted at 6 p.m. EDT for the entire coast of Texas and the northeast coast of Mexico from Tampico northward and residents were warned to be ready for 'quick action' Thursday.
Small craft from the watch area to Gulfport, Miss., were urged to remain in port, and thousands of people were evacuated from oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico and coastal areas of Texas and Louisiana.
The eye of the most powerful Atlantic storm on record tore into the Yucatan's northeast coast at noon and chugged into the gulf about eight hours later. Gilbert raked the peninsula for hours, dumping torrential rains on the ruined ancient Mayan city of Mayapan, 35 miles southeast of Merida.
There were no reports of casualties in the Yucatan, but officials said communication was nearly impossible with the region because of downed telephone lines and the poor weather itself.
At midnight EDT, Gilbert was centered near latitude 21.5 north and longitude 90.2 west, about 60 miles off the north coast of the Yucatan and 550 miles southeast of Brownsville, Texas. It was moving west-northwest at 15 mph.
Gilbert was a Category 5 storm -- the highest rating -- just before landfall with winds of 175 mph and gusts to 200 mph, but its winds dropped to 140 mph at 6 p.m. as it howled across the Yucatan and to 125 mph at 9 p.m. as it finally reached the gulf -- making it a Category 3 storm.
Bob Sheets, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said the long time the eye of the storm spend over land meant it could take up to 12 hours for it to trengthen over the warm gulf waters.
But Sheets said Gilbert was expected to return to Category 4 status - with winds of up to 155 mph -- and could reach Category 5.
Earlier in the week, Gilbert caused at least 20 deaths and massive property damage in a sweep across the Caribbean that left 500,000 people homeless and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in Jamaica alone. U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar issed a plea for international aid for victims of the hurricane.
In the Yucatan, trees blocked roads, telephone, electrical and water service was out in many areas and homes were damaged or flooded, Salvador Macia Cabrera, a Defense Ministry spokesman in Mexico City, said Wednesday night.
'We do not have the information everyone wants to know. We are only making contact with authorities in the region via the radio and at times this is impossible because of the weather,' he said. 'What we do know is that the situation is grave and that every available help is being given.'
Sheets of rain, at times so dense they appeared like curtains of white spray, roared down from the sky and across the deserted streets of Valladolid, a city of 75,000 people 110 miles west of the beach resort of Cancun and 100 miles east of Merida.
High tension towers were crumpled like paper along the highway leading from Merida to Valladolid. Telephone and electrical wires flew around in the wind.
The government had cut out all power to avoid danger from fallen lines.
State police in Vallalodid said dozens of houses, mostly belonging to poor people, were destroyed when wind gusts tore across the low-lying peninsula.
'The entire peninsula is cut off from communications and we haven't yet received reports of deaths and injuries, but we are preparing for the worst,' Sgt. Mario Vallardes of the Yucatan state police told United Press International.
Sheets of corrugated tin commonly used as roofing flew through the air and streets were littered with the branches of hundreds of trees felled by the gusts.
Churches, schools, hotels and the Valladolid City Hall were packed with refugees from the hard-hit coastal areas.
Judith Hernandez of Isla Mujeres, a resort island off the coast of Cancun, told UPI most of her neighbors acted very casually about the impending storm and she worried about those who refused to evacuate.
Joe Walsh and Pat Eagen of Temecula, Calif., said they got out of Cancun 'just in time.'
'We had a few days off and decided to go to Cancun. It was either that or Jamaica. We really know how to pick them,' Eagen said.
The huge storm -- 500 miles across -- snapped tropical trees and turned streets into rivers in Merida Wednesday, as thousands of tourists sought refuge in the city after their evacuation from the peninsula's posh resort beaches.
Roads into Cancun were closed to both tourists and the general population and the miles of luxury hotels lining white sand beaches were virtually empty as the hurricane's eye passed over at midday.
Officials had evacuated 100,000 people from Cancun by Tuesday.
Airports at Cancun, Cozumel and Merida were closed.
Gilbert's winds and rains of up to 10 inches battered the ruins of Mayapan, once the political and religious base of Mayan rulers in the Yucatan, where archeologists have uncovered 3,600 buildings, including the large Castillo pyramid on the great plaza.