October 22, 2005

Hurricane Wilma batters Mexican resorts, 6 dead

By Noel Randewich

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - Hurricane Wilma blasted through
Mexico's Caribbean resorts on Saturday, smashing homes and
killing at least six 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 off Quintana Roo state roared inland.

"The structural damage is everywhere. And the winds are
still strong," Quintana Roo Gov. Felix Gonzalez said.

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

Dozens waded out of smashed stores clasping plasma TVs,
fridges and bundles of clothes on hangers. Police fired shots
into the water to try to 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 calmed down by evening to a Category 2 hurricane on
the five-stage Saffir-Simpson scale, but winds were still 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 island of Cozumel, popular
with scuba divers, took the brunt of the storm on Friday. Many
locals remained in shelters on Saturday, with winds still
raging, power still out and no boat services running.

"It's still going on, it's raining hard and the wind is
blowing. I haven't left my house since Thursday afternoon,"
said Kathleen Martin Kopelman, owner of the Amigo's Bed and
Breakfast, five blocks from the ocean on the island.

Gonzalez said there were reports of two deaths on Cozumel.

One person also died in Cancun when a gust of wind blew out
a window, two were killed in the resort town of Playa del
Carmen, farther south, when a gas tank exploded, and a man was
killed in Yucatan state when a tree branch blew off and crushed

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 airstrip.

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.

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

Mexico is used to hurricanes but Wilma is one of the
biggest and slowest-moving in years, dumping intense rain. It
is also unusually big with a diameter of 500 miles.

Thousands of stranded tourists prepared for another night
huddled in dank, sweaty refuges but were glad to be safe.

"We are very fortunate to be here. We were in a palm hut. I
bet there is nothing left," said Scott Whitcher, 38, from San
Francisco, washing in rain on a hotel balcony.

Some 1,600 tourists in a gymnasium had been 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 was hit by drenching rains and tornadoes.

This hurricane season has spawned three of the fiercest
storms on record. Experts say the Atlantic has entered a period
of heightened storm activity that could last for 20 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)