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Strengthening Hurricane Delta roars toward Mexico's Yucatan

MEXICO CITY (AP) — A strengthening Hurricane Delta was on a course to pass by the Cayman Islands early Tuesday before hitting Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula potentially as a major storm and continuing on to strike the U.S. Gulf coast later in the week.

As Delta shifted west on Monday, Cuba withdrew a hurricane warning for its western province of Pinar del Rio and replaced it with a tropical storm warning. There was also a tropical storm warning for the Cayman Islands including Little Cayman and Cayman Brac.

But the brunt of the hurricane was expected to be felt by the resort-studded northeastern tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, which was forecast to start seeing hurricane conditions Tuesday night with the storm reaching land in the early hours of Wednesday. That part of Mexico is still soaked from Tropical Storm Gamma which hit its resorts over the weekend.

Delta “presents an important danger for the coastal regions” because its storm surge could raise water levels by 2 to 3 in the lower parts of Quintana Roo, such as the resorts of Cancun, Holbox island or Isla Mujeres, Jorge Zavala, head of Mexico’s meteorological service, said in a press conference late Monday.

Zavala said preventative evacuations would begin Tuesday morning.

Forecasters said the hurricane was moving into an area with very warm water and nearly calm high winds that forecasters at the hurricane center called “a very conducive environment for strengthening."

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Monday night that a hurricane warning was in effect in Mexico, from Tulum to Rio Lagartos, as well as Cozumel. Delta is forecast to make landfall on the U.S. Gulf Coast around Friday.

Delta is the earliest 25th named storm to form in the Atlantic, beating the old record of Nov. 15, 2005, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.

It had top winds of 80 mph (130 kph) Monday night and was about 180 miles (295 kilometers) south-southeast of Grand Cayman. It was moving west-northwest near 7 mph (11 kph).

Delta is expected to hammer parts of southeastern Mexico already drenched by Tropical Storm Gamma.

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AP writer Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.

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