October 21, 2005

Wilma lashes Mexico’s beaches

By Greg Brosnan

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico (Reuters) - Hurricane Wilma's
ferocious winds battered Mexico's famed Caribbean beach resorts
on Friday, knocking over trees and signposts and trapping
thousands of nervous tourists in cramped shelters.

Powerful waves swallowed up white sand beaches in the
popular resort of Cancun and howling winds tore across the
island of Cozumel, a favorite of scuba divers and cruise ship

All along the "Maya Riviera," sturdy tropical trees danced
in the wild wind and others lay toppled in empty and flooded
streets. Electricity was cut and signposts were sent spinning
through the air.

"I'm okay, I'm okay -- don't worry," Italian tourist Manuel
Sanilli, dressed in black rain gear, screamed down a payphone
to his family in Rome as he gripped on to the wall behind him
in Playa del Carmen resort, south of Cancun.

"Mother of God! My family says they're praying for me," he
said after hanging up, his hands clasped together in prayer.

Forecasters warned of catastrophic damage as Wilma, a
Category 4 hurricane, moved in from the Caribbean with winds of
140 mph (225 kph). The storm's center was just southeast of
Cozumel on Friday and it was expected to crash into the coast
later in the day.

"The sound of the wind is what is frightening," said Rossy
Mischne, holed up inside the Cozumel hotel where she works.

On the same island, 18 dolphins evacuated from their sea
enclosure swam around in hotel swimming pools.

Emergency officials warned the slow-moving storm could
linger over the Yucatan peninsula and dump torrential rains
across southern Mexico, raising the risk of lethal mudslides
and damage to coffee crops in an area already devastated by
Hurricane Stan earlier this month.


At one sweltering gymnasium in Cancun, around 1,600 people
lay on mattresses eating canned food and sweating in the dank
heat, many stripped down to bathing suits or underwear.

Some worried whether the walls would hold up, while a more
optimistic local entrepreneur sold T-shirts with the hopeful
logo: "I Survived Hurricane Wilma."

"I wish it would get a move on. It's frustrating," said
British software salesman Rob Stevens. "We've come a long way
and now we are sitting here in a hot, damp, leaking building.
No one seems to know how long it will be."

Mexican emergency officials said more than 50,000 people
were evacuated and about 17,000 were put in shelters such as
schools, gymnasiums and hotel conference rooms further inland.

Hundreds of construction workers, most from the southern
state of Chiapas, were moved from their temporary lodgings in
outdoor camps and building sites in Playa del Carmen.

In a kindergarten classroom near the beach, 50 men sat on
the concrete floor, too cramped to lie down, eating with their
hands from cans of donated tuna fish. "This sucks," said Juan
Cruz Perez, 21, a metal worker from nearby Tabasco state.

The storm was expected to dump 10 to 20 inches (25 to 50
cm) of rain across the Yucatan and isolated areas of
mountainous western Cuba. Some areas could get up to 40 inches
, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in Miami.

Mudslides caused by rains from Wilma killed 10 people in
Haiti earlier this week.

Cuba was already feeling Wilma's fury with up to 7 inches

of rain in the west and 18-foot (6-meter) waves pounding
the Isle of Youth off its south coast, the Cuban weather
institute said.

Cuba evacuated some 350,000 people from low-lying areas and
precarious buildings in case Wilma hits over the weekend.

Wilma was expected to crash into heavily-populated southern
Florida late on Sunday, giving Florida residents another couple
of days to stock up on drinking water and gasoline.

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.

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

At 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT) on Friday, Wilma's center was just
15 miles southeast of Cozumel and moving northwest at 5 mph (7
kph), according to the U.S. Hurricane Center.

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.

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.

(Additional reporting by Noel Randewich in Cancun, Anthony
Boadle in Cuba, Lorraine Orlandi in Mexico City and Jane Sutton
in Miami)