October 20, 2005

Tourists flee as Hurricane Wilma threatens Mexico

By Noel Randewich

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - Roaring waves pounded Mexican
beach resorts on Thursday and thousands of tourists were
evacuated to escape the wrath of Hurricane Wilma, which
gathered strength in the Caribbean on its way to Florida.

Cuba evacuated 220,000 people and residents of southern
Florida stocked up on drinking water and gas to prepare for
Wilma, which spun off the coasts of Mexico and Belize packing
winds of about 150 mph (240 kph).

Described by forecasters as extremely dangerous, Wilma
killed 10 people in mudslides in Haiti earlier in the week.

Expensive beachfront hotels all along Mexico's "Maya
Riviera" coast emptied of tourists who fled to shelters. The
normally calm, turquoise Caribbean heaved and frothed and rain
began to fall.

"We are trying to stay calm, but we are freaking out
inside," said Kerry Rieth, a tourist from Pennsylvania in the
cloud-covered resort of Cancun.

Wilma became the strongest Atlantic storm on record in
terms of barometric pressure on Wednesday. It weakened to a
Category 4 hurricane, then picked up again as it headed for
Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, where it was expected to hit on

"Believe me, this is still a very, very powerful
hurricane," said Max Mayfield, director of the U.S. National
Hurricane Center in Miami.

About 150 tourists from Britain ended up sleeping the night
on the floor of a school shelter in Cancun without blankets
after checking out of their hotel and then finding their flight
home canceled.

"We just want something to eat and something to drink,"
said tourist Karen Walker.

Firefighters and other emergency workers drove around
Cancun on Thursday night and climbed ladders to take down
traffic lights they fear will be blown away by Wilma.

At 8 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT), Wilma was 120 miles southeast of
Cozumel, Mexico, and was slowly moving northwest.

Forecasters said it would strike densely populated southern
Florida late on Sunday.

The hurricane season has six weeks left and has already
spawned three of the most intense storms on record. Hurricane
experts say the Atlantic has entered a period of heightened
storm activity that could last 20 more years.

The storm was expected to miss Gulf of Mexico oil and gas
facilities battered by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August
and September, but Florida's orange groves were at risk.


"The center of Wilma will be very near the coastline of the
Yucatan by midday tomorrow. However, Wilma has a large
circulation, and hurricane conditions will be felt well before
the arrival of the center," the hurricane center said.

Residents who live in flimsy shacks that cannot withstand
high winds were being moved to shelters.

Some 150 poor construction workers helping to build hotels
and supermarkets hunkered down for the night at a school in the
resort of Playa del Carmen.

"They haven't paid me yet. I have no money, no food," said
Fernando Gomez, a Tojolabal Indian worker from the state of
Chiapas, whose feet were sticking out of old boots.

The island of Cozumel, one of the world's best spots for
scuba diving, faced a possible direct hit and tourists were
ordered to leave. In Cancun, they took shelter at gymnasiums
and schools as the storm was expected to send a
10-foot(3-metre) surge of water over the coast.

Mexican authorities said about 42,000 tourists could be
evacuated from coastal areas.

Lowanda Cole, a massage therapist from Houston, said she
was getting used to hurricanes after one of the most
destructive seasons on record.

"We evacuated from Rita, we helped folks out with Katrina
and now here we are and we have to run again. We can't get away
from these things," she said in a crowded Cancun hotel lobby as
she waited with her sons to be evacuated.

At a briefing in Tallahassee, Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush told
residents to take advantage of the extra time the slow-moving
storm had given them to prepare.

"You need to have nonperishable food for 72 hours. Make
sure you have fresh water, make sure you have batteries,
battery-powered radios and lighting so that you can survive
what will happen after a storm."

Authorities in the Keys, connected to mainland Florida by a
single road, ordered tourists out on Wednesday and were
considering telling the islands' 80,000 residents to evacuate.

Tobacco planters in Cuba's westernmost Pinar del Rio
province protected seedlings and secured bales of leaves for
the country's famed cigars.

(Additional reporting by Greg Brosnan in Playa del Carmen,
Jane Sutton in Miami, Jennifer Portman in Tallahassee and
Anthony Boadle in Cuba)