October 22, 2005

Wilma rampages Mexico’s Caribbean

By Greg Brosnan

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico (Reuters) - Massive Hurricane
Wilma rampaged through Mexico's Caribbean beach resorts on
Saturday, threatening heavy damage and loss of life as it
meandered into the Yucatan peninsula.

Winds of 140 miles an hour (220 kph) howled in off the sea,
knocking over houses, upturning trees and trapping thousands of
tourists in cramped shelters.

Metal sheets flew off the roofs of homes in Playa del
Carmen and spun dangerously through the streets like Frisbees.

The slow-moving storm battered the coastline for more than
24 hours and was due to hang over the area until at least
Saturday night, raising the risk of disaster.

Authorities said there were no reports of deaths so far.

"It's a monster. It is roaring all the time," said
Guadalupe Torroella in the low-lying resort of Cancun, where
the sea rushed onto the land and flooded international hotels.

Wilma dumped 23 inches (590 mm) of rain on Friday on Isla
Mujeres island, an unprecedented downpour for Mexico.

"We are talking about a record hurricane as far as rain is
concerned," said meteorologist Alberto Hernandez Unzon.

He said Wilma, a Category 4 storm, the second-strongest
category of hurricane, had an unusually wide diameter of 500

Mudslides caused by rains from Wilma killed 10 people in
Haiti earlier this week and Cuba was reeling as the storm
drenched the west of the island and unleashed tornadoes .

Wilma was expected to begin hitting heavily populated
southern Florida as early as Sunday. While forecasters expect
it to weaken by that time, authorities in the Keys ordered
tourists out and were considering evacuating the islands'
80,000 residents.

Five flimsy homes had collapsed in Mexico's Playa del
Carmen but their residents were among the tens of thousands who
had already fled to damp shelters.

The town hall lay broken with windows blown out and
furniture tossed onto office floors. Five prisoners escaped
from a nearby jail into the jungle after a fence blew down.


The storm was expected to dump 10 to 20 inches (25 to 50
cm) of rain across the Yucatan peninsula and western Cuba. Some
areas could get up to 40 inches, U.S. forecasters said.

"The Yucatan is really getting nailed on this," said Max
Mayfield, director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center. "It
will continue to pound that region for at least 24 hours."

Wilma briefly reached record strength out at sea earlier
this week.

All along Mexico's "Maya Riviera," thousands of stranded
tourists huddled nervously in dank, sweaty gymnasiums and
schools as the flimsy wooden beach cabins where many had been
staying took a battering.

"When the boards blew off our window we decided to look
outside and -- oh my God," said Gloria Winkles, a tourist from
Texas sheltering in a small hotel in from the coast and looking
out at raging waters in which a blue jeep lay half submerged.

Sullen visitors grabbed sleep in damp shelters and played
cards by candlelight

"The trouble is, you don't know how long it is going to go
on for. You don't know anything," said Swiss vacationer
Christen Jasmin, 19, sitting in the half light in the dining
room of a hotel in Playa del Carmen.

Cuba evacuated 368,000 people from low-lying areas as it
braced for coastal storm surges and floods.

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

At 11 p.m. EDT on Friday (0300 GMT) its center was 15 miles

south of Cancun and moving northwest at 3 mph (6 kph).

Wilma was expected to miss Gulf of Mexico oil and gas
facilities but Florida's orange groves were at risk.

This hurricane season has spawned three of the most intense
storms on record. 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, and Jane Sutton in Miami)