October 22, 2005

Hurricane Wilma pounds Mexico’s Yucatan

By Greg Brosnan

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico (Reuters) - Hurricane Wilma
relentlessly pounded Mexico's Caribbean coast on Saturday,
destroying homes and flooding beach resorts as it meandered
slowly over the Yucatan peninsula.

Winds of 120 miles an hour (195 kph) knocked over houses,
upturned trees and kept thousands of tourists in cramped

The storm lost a bit of its punch -- it was downgraded to a
Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson scale -- but its winds and
rains were still powerful enough to cause massive damage and
threaten lives. Emergency forces reported no deaths so far.

Metal sheets flew off the roofs of homes in the beach
resort of Playa del Carmen and spun dangerously through the

"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.

At least 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.

Wilma was still dumping torrential rain over a wide chunk
of the Yucatan peninsula whose resorts are famous for turquoise
seas and white sand. It was just 9 miles from Cancun early
Saturday and was drifting northward.

The stalled storm has battered Playa del Carmen, Cancun and
diving center Cozumel for the past 36 hours and was due to hang
over the area until at least Saturday night.

Wilma dumped 23 inches 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 was unusually big with a diameter of 500 miles.

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

In one hotel doubling as a shelter where there has been no
electricity or running water for two days, Scott Whitcher, 38,
stood on his balcony and bathed in the pouring rain.

"We are very fortunate to be in here. We were in a palm
hut. I bet there is nothing left. I cannot wait for this to be
over," said the San Francisco resident.

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.


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.

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

Wilma was expected to head off into the Gulf of Mexico once
it has finished battering Yucatan and could hit heavily
populated southern Florida as early as Sunday.

While forecasters expect it to weaken by that time,
authorities in the Florida Keys ordered the mandatory
evacuation of the islands 80,000 residents from noon on
Saturday. Tourists had already been evacuated.

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

Wilma briefly reached record strength out at sea on
Wednesday but has since lost some steam.

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)