October 22, 2005

Hurricane Wilma pounds Mexican resorts, killing three

By Noel Randewich

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - Hurricane Wilma blasted through
Mexico's Caribbean resorts on Saturday, smashing homes and
killing three people in a slow-moving rampage that put it on
course to hit Florida next.

Howling hurricane winds tore off roofs and uprooted trees
for a third day running across the Yucatan peninsula. Thousands
of glum tourists faced another night in sweltering shelters
with no light or running water, eating food rations.

The long spit of white sand that draws planeloads of sun
seekers to Cancun was under water. Luxury hotels were flooded
up to knee-level and littered with debris after the normally
tranquil sea roared inland.

As the rains and winds eased a little on Saturday evening,
tourists and locals ventured out in search of food and some
took advantage of the chaos to loot.

Dozens waded out of smashed stores with plasma TVs, fridges
and bundles of clothes on hangers. Police fired shots into the
water to try and scatter them.

"It's a complete disaster. The city is totally destroyed,"
said restaurant worker Pablo Resendiz, picking his way through
flooded streets that were cut off to cars by tangles of fallen
power cables and other debris.

Rescue workers paddled to flooded neighborhoods and plucked
families from houses where the muddy water was chest-high.

In one area, locals had spent a terrifying night, afraid
that crocodiles from a nearby swamp would swim in with the
water rushing into their homes.

"It was a hellish nightmare. We thought the water was going
to reach the second floor," said lawyer Oscar Trevino as his
wife and four children were helped to safety.

In a nearby house, a 4-year-old girl sat shivering and
hungry on a soggy mattress perched on a kitchen counter and
table where her bedraggled family spent the night.

Wilma had calmed down by evening to a Category 2 hurricane
on the five-stage Saffir-Simpson scale, but winds were still at
100 mph (160 kph) with higher gusts. It was expected to move
into the Gulf of Mexico during the night.


The Yucatan peninsula, famous for its turquoise seas, white
sand and Mayan ruins, has been lashed by Wilma since Thursday.

Florida was next in line with Wilma due to hit by Monday.
Authorities were taking no risks after Hurricane Katrina
devastated New Orleans, and ordered mandatory evacuations,
starting with 80,000 residents of the vulnerable Florida Keys.

"Take this seriously. There will be flooding," Key West
spokesman Michael Haskins told local radio.

In Mexico, the coral-fringed resort island of Cozumel,
popular with scuba divers, took the brunt of the storm on
Friday. Many locals remained in shelters on Saturday, with
power still out and no boat services running.

One man was killed in Yucatan state when a tree branch blew
off and crushed him. Two people died when a gas tank exploded
in the resort of Playa del Carmen, south of Cancun.

Half a dozen flimsy homes were knocked down in Playa del
Carmen and felled concrete pylons cut the highway to Cancun. A
smashed small plane lay upside down on a flooded air strip.

As locals bailed out their homes with buckets, Mexican and
foreign visitors waded through waist-high water, desperate for
food and water. A German couple dragged their backpacks through
the chalky water, searching for somewhere dry to sleep.

"We haven't eaten since Thursday. I don't know what we're
going to do," said migrant worker Juan Gonzales.

Wilma was moving extremely slowly, raising hopes it will
have weakened considerably before reaching Florida.

Mexico is used to hurricanes but this is one of the biggest
and slowest-moving in years, dumping intense rain on the area.

Meteorologist Alberto Hernandez noted Wilma was also
unusually big with a diameter of 500 miles.

"I've lived through three hurricanes. This is the worst,"
said tourist police chief Alberto Pat in Playa del Carmen,
where five prisoners escaped from jail when a fence blew down.

Thousands of stranded tourists prepared for another night
huddled in dank, sweaty refuges but many were relieved to have
been evacuated from flimsy beach cabins along the coast.

"We are very fortunate to be here. We were in a palm hut. I
bet there is nothing left. I cannot wait for this to be over,"
said Scott Whitcher, 38, from San Francisco. He was bathing in
rain on a hotel balcony after two days without running water.

Some 1,600 tourists in a gymnasium were moved to safer
locations just before the roof blew off, a city official said.

Mudslides caused by Wilma killed 10 people in Haiti this
week and Cuba, which evacuated 559,000 people, was hit by
drenching rains and tornadoes in the west of the island.

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 for years.

(Additional reporting by Greg Brosnan in Playa del Carmen,
Monica Medel in Mexico City, Michael Christie in Miami, Laura
Myers in Key West and Anthony Boadle in Cuba)