October 21, 2005

Wilma lashes Mexican beaches

By Noel Randewich

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - Hurricane Wilma's ferocious
winds and rain pounded Mexico's famous Caribbean beach resorts
on Friday, knocking down trees and pinning thousands of
tourists inside cramped shelters.

Powerful waves swallowed up Cancun's white sand beaches and
most of Mexico's "Maya Riviera" resorts were in darkness as
electricity was knocked out along the coast and on the island
of Cozumel, a favorite of scuba divers.

Sturdy tropical trees danced in howling winds and others
lay toppled in empty and flooded streets

Stinging rains gathered strength as Wilma, a Category 4
hurricane, moved in slowly from the Caribbean with winds of 145
mph (230 kph). Forecasters warned the storm could cause
catastrophic damage when it hits land later on Friday.

Tourists were evacuated from luxury beachfront hotels and
the normally calm, turquoise Caribbean seas heaved as security
forces ordered locals and foreigners to take cover.

Thousands of foreigners flew out on special flights on
Thursday. Others took shelter inside schools, gymnasiums and
hotel conference rooms further inland.

"We just want something to eat and something to drink,"
said British tourist Karen Walker, one of dozens who spent
seven hours on buses looking for a shelter after their flight
was canceled. They ended up at a school on the outskirts of
Cancun without mattresses and blankets.

At one gymnasium, about 1,600 people slept on mattresses
and ate canned food. A local entrepreneur sold T-shirts with
the hopeful logo: "I Survived Hurricane Wilma."


Wilma killed 10 people in mudslides in Haiti earlier this
week and is expected to crash into heavily-populated southern
Florida late on Sunday, after hitting Mexico's Yucatan
peninsula and spinning into the Gulf of Mexico.

Cuba evacuated 220,000 people and Florida residents stocked
up on drinking water and gasoline.

In Mexico, emergency officials said about 22,000 tourists
and local residents were evacuated from low-lying coastal

For Simon Hayes, 28, of Britain the storm interrupted "the
holiday of a lifetime" in the Playa del Carmen resort. "This is
not how I envisaged it working out," he said.

But conditions were far tougher for hundreds of migrant
construction workers, mostly from the impoverished southern
state of Chiapas, who were evacuated from temporary lodgings in
outdoor camps and building sites.

In a kindergarten near Playa del Carmen's beachfront, 50
men sat on the concrete floor of a classroom, too cramped to
lie down, eating with their hands from cans of donated tuna
fish. "This sucks," said Juan Cruz Perez, a 21-year-old migrant
metal worker from the Gulf state of Tabasco.

Emergency officials said one shelter in Cancun flooded
overnight, forcing the relocation of about 300 people.

Wilma became the strongest Atlantic storm on record in
terms of barometric pressure on Wednesday.

At 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT) on Friday, Wilma was 50 miles
southeast of Cozumel and was moving toward the north-northwest
at 6 mph (9 km/h), according to the U.S. National Hurricane

It was expected to dump 10 to 20 inches of rain across the
Yucatan and isolated areas of mountainous western Cuba could be
hit with up to 40 inches.

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.

Wilma 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.

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

(Additional reporting by Greg Brosnan in Playa del Carmen
and Jane Sutton in Miami)