Wilma ‘clobbering’ Mexico’s Yucatan
By Greg Brosnan
PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico (Reuters) – Massive Hurricane
Wilma clobbered Mexico’s Caribbean beach resorts on Saturday,
threatening heavy damage and loss of life as it meandered
slowly into the Yucatan peninsula.
Winds of 125 miles an hour (220 kph) howled in off the sea,
knocking over houses, upturning trees and trapping thousands of
tourists in cramped shelters. The storm was downgraded to a
Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson scale, from a Category 4 on
Friday and a record-breaking Category 5 earlier this week.
The calm of the storm’s eye settled over Playa del Carmen
early in the day but the storm’s north eye wall was “really
clobbering northeastern Yucatan,” the U.S. National Hurricane
Center said in a 5 a.m. EDT report on its web site at
Metal sheets flew off the roofs of homes in Playa del
Carmen and spun dangerously through the streets like Frisbees.
The stalled 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 had an unusually wide diameter of 500 miles.
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 Florida 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.
YUCATAN GETTING NAILED
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 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 National Hurricane Center. “It will
continue to pound that region for at least 24 hours.”
Wilma briefly reached record strength out at sea earlier
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 5 p.m. EDT on Friday its center was 25 miles
south of Cancun and roughly stationary, the hurricane
center reported. A gradual northward drift should begin later
in the day, it said.
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)