CANCUN, MEXICO, SEPT. 15 (THURSDAY) -- Hurricane Gilbert, one of the strongest storms on record, slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula yesterday and leveled thatched homes, tore off roofs, uprooted trees and cut off the Caribbean resorts of Cancun and Cozumel before entering the Gulf of Mexico.

{U.S. forecasters said Gilbert would likely head toward the Texas coast, with landfall expected Friday night or early Saturday, United Press International reported.}

Looters roamed the streets of Cancun as blinding wind gusts smashed windows and huge waves battered the resorts, forcing tens of thousands to evacuate amid heavy flooding. Despite the storm's intensity, officials reported only two minor injuries.

Amateur radio operators said an oil tanker from the fleet of the government oil monopoly Pemex, the Lazaro Cardenas, had run aground on the beach in the Cancun hotel zone. Pemex officials said, however, that all their vessels were secure.

Army officials in Mexico City said about 35,000 people were evacuated from Cancun, but Cancun Mayor Jose Sanchez Zapata said about 11,000 fled.

The storm left at least 24 persons dead in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, and Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga said 300,000 people were homeless in that island nation.

The hurricane's 160 mph winds ripped over Cozumel island earlier yesterday. Ham radio operators in the area said Gilbert knocked down a radio and television communications tower, uprooted trees and blew the roofs off buildings.

Oil companies evacuated thousands of workers from rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, reports from New Orleans said. Residents along the gulf coast of Texas, 560 miles to the north, stockpiled food and supplies and prepared to evacuate.

{Forecasters said a direct hit on Texas would cause "catastrophic damage." 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 concern that the storm could affect mission control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, near Galveston Bay, United Press International reported.

{The National Weather Service has issued a hurricane watch for the coasts of Texas and northeastern Mexico and warned residents to be ready for "quick action."}

Floods prevented officials from reaching the hotel zone in Cancun, and there were no relief efforts under way by late yesterday. Shelters had little or no food, water or blankets and power was out.

"We can't do it yet. The wind would blow them away," said an Army official at city hall who declined to give his name.

Bands of 25 to 30 youths roamed the streets of Cancun, looting stores with shattered windows, said Alfredo Moro Sanchez, investigative coordinator of the Quintana Roo state judicial police.

He said he asked for Army troops to halt the looting but none had arrived by tonight.

On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, Gilbert pounded the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and the low-lying Cayman Islands.

The Jamaican Embassy in Washington said nine people were confirmed dead, but state-operated Jamaican Broadcasting Corp., operating by generator, reported at least 19 killed by the storm. The embassy said airports in Jamaica were open for emergency traffic only, that electricity and water were limited and that all communications were "extremely limited." It said no Americans were reported hurt.

Civil defense officials in the Dominican Republic, sideswiped Sunday by the storm, reported five persons known dead.

Gilbert also buffeted the Cayman Islands, a British dependency of 23,000, but caused no deaths, said Daniel Ebanks, an announcer for Radio Cayman, Tuesday night.

The winds leveled slum areas in Cancun on the Mexican mainland, where many people live in cardboard shacks, the amateur radio operators said. In Quintana Roo state, huge waves lashed at Caribbean resort beaches and trees were downed, Mexican officials said.

"The sound of the wind outside is horrible," said receptionist Pablo Torres at the Hotel Carrillos in Cancun in a telephone interview as the storm approached. "You couldn't leave even if you wanted to."

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

The National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Fla., said a hurricane watch was in effect along the Texas coast from Brownsville to Port Arthur and along the coast of northeastern Mexico from Tampico north.

Just after midnight this morning, Gilbert was centered near latitude 21.5 north, longitude 90.2 west, about 60 miles off the north coast of Yucatan, the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Fla., said. The storm was about 550 miles southeast of Brownsville, Texas, the center said in a statement.

Gilbert's winds had decreased to 125 mph as it moved over land, but the center said wind speed was expected to rise once the storm moved back over the warm Gulf of Mexico waters. It said the hurricane was moving west-northwest at 15 mph.

Gilbert is a Category 5 storm, the strongest and deadliest type of hurricane. Such storms have maximum sustained winds greater than 155 mph and can cause catastrophic damage. Only two Category 5 hurricanes have hit the United States since such measurements became possible -- a 1935 storm that killed 408 people in Florida, and Hurricane Camille, which devastated the Mississippi coast in 1969 and killed 256 people.

Pemex said it evacuated 5,000 workers from platforms in the Campeche Sound on the gulf side of the Yucatan Peninsula and closed down all wells in the sound.

The peninsula ports of Campeche, Celestum, Progreso, Sinzal, Ucaltepen, Tel-Chac, Cancun, Puerto Morelos and Ciudad del Carmen were closed, the government news agency Notimex said. Airports in Cancun, Cozumel and Chetumal also were closed, it said.

The Mexican National Weather Service reported winds gusting as high as 218 mph yesterday, with sustained winds of 179 mph.

Military and civilian teams evacuated about 16,000 people from coastal areas on the upper Yucatan coast between Puerto Progreso and Rio Lagartos, said Jose Pereira, a spokesman for the Yucatan governor's office.

In Mexico City, the National Civil Defense System said it lost telephone contact with Cancun and Cozumel at about 8 a.m. EDT yesterday as Gilbert began sweeping ashore. Amateur radio operators in the capital also said they lost touch with most operators on the Caribbean coast this morning.

Schools, military installations, churches and public buildings in Cancun were being used as shelters, said Cecila Lavalle, a spokesman for the Quintana Roo state government in Chetumal, 155 miles southeast of Cozumel.

Pereira said that in Merida, the provincial capital of Yucatan, "many people were reluctant to leave their homes. They had to be convinced of the seriousness of the threat."

He said the power went out in Cancun hours before it felt the full brunt of the storm. "The people were afraid. The wind was blowing out windows everywhere," he said.

Jennie Valdez, a U.S. consular representative in Cancun, said she did not know how many tourists were in Cancun, but government figures estimate from 40,000 to 65,000 people come there monthly.

The National Civil Defense System on Tuesday had ordered the evacuation of everyone living less than 15 feet above sea level and within 2,000 feet of the Caribbean coast.

.................. ATLANTIC STORMS THAT KILLED....................

... 20TH CENTURY HURRICANES WITH GREATEST NUMBER OF CASUALTIES....

..................................................................

Date...............Name.... Area Affected...................Killed

Sept. 8, 1900......*....... Galveston, Tex...................6,000

Sept. 16-22, 1926..*....... Florida and Alabama................372

Oct. 20, 1926......*....... Cuba...............................600

Sept. 12-17, 1928..*....... West Indies and Florida..........6,000

Sept. 3, 1930......*....... Santo Domingo....................2,000

Sept. 2, 1935......*....... Florida Keys.......................408

Sept. 21, 1938.....*....... New England........................600

Sept. 12-16, 1944..*....... North Carolina to New England......389

Oct. 12-13, 1954...Hazel... Haiti and eastern United States....347

Aug. 18-19, 1955...Diane... Eastern United States..............400

Sept. 19, 1955.....Hilda... Mexico.............................200

Sept. 22-28, 1955..Janet... Caribbean..........................500

June 27-30, 1957...Audrey.. Louisiana and Texas................430

Oct. 31, 1961......Hattie.. British Honduras...................400

Oct. 4-8, 1963.....Flora... Cuba and Haiti...................6,000

Sept. 24-30, 1966..Inez.... Caribbean, Florida and Mexico......293

Aug. 17-18, 1969...Camille. Mississippi and Louisiana..........256

Sept. 19-20, 1974..Fifi.... Honduras.........................2,000

Aug. 30, 1979......David... Dominican Republic, Dominica.....1,200

........................... and Florida...........................

Aug. 4-11, 1980....Allen... Caribbean and Texas................272

*U.S. government agencies responsible for weather and related communications have used names to identify major tropical storms only since 1953.

SOURCE: Associated Press