October 23, 2005

Mexican Caribbean slammed by Hurricane Wilma

By Noel Randewich

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexico's famed Caribbean resorts
were knee-deep in water on Sunday after Hurricane Wilma roared
through, smashing homes and killing at least six people, as the
storm set a new course for Florida.

Three full days of howling hurricane winds and rain left
towns along the coast badly flooded, and thousands of sullen
tourists spent their third night in dark stuffy refuges with no
running water and food running short.

Hundreds of thousands of people suffered serious damage to
their homes as the storm moved slowly over the Yucatan
peninsula, knocking out power lines and tearing off roofs.

The long spit of white sand that draws planeloads of sun
seekers to Cancun was under water. Luxury hotels were flooded
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 late on
Saturday as the army prepared to send in trucks and planes with
food, water, medical kits and building materials.

President Vicente Fox was also due to fly to the area on

In Florida, hurricane warnings were in effect for the
Florida Keys and along the state's west coast from Longboat Key
southward and the east coast from Titusville south. A hurricane
warning was also in effect for Havana and western Cuba. Such
warnings mean hurricane conditions are expected within 24

In Cancun, locals and tourists alike endured another night
in cramped refuges with no electricity -- most of them in damp
3-day-old clothes and dreaming of hot food and a warm bed.

"We wanted to do it all -- the lobster cruise, the booze
cruise," sighed Dwayne Redmond, a Chicago firefighter who came
to Mexico with his wife for the vacation of a lifetime.

Many foreigners said they craved a beer to cheer them up,
but alcohol sales have been banned since Wilma hit on Thursday.

Adding to the gloom, rumors circulated that flights from
Cancun might not resume for days and tourists may have to be
bused out of the Yucatan peninsula, famous for its turquoise
coral-filled seas, white sand and Mayan ruins.

As the storm eased on Saturday evening, people ventured out
in search of food, 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.

Rescue workers in boats plucked families from houses where
the muddy water was chest-high.


Florida was next in line, with Wilma due to hit by Monday.

Wilma's eye drifted toward the northeast into the Gulf of
Mexico early on Sunday. It was moving about 3 mph (4.8 kph) but
was expected to pick up speed in the next 24 hours, the U.S.
National Hurricane Center said.

At 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT), Wilma's maximum sustained winds
were holding steady at 100 mph (160 kph) and some increase in
strength was possible on Sunday. The storm ranked as a Category
2 hurricane on the five-stage Saffir-Simpson scale. Such a
storm can cause moderate damage.

The center of the storm was about 40 miles north of Cancun
and about 350 miles west-southwest of Key West, the hurricane
center said.

Florida authorities were taking no risks and ordered
evacuations, starting with 80,000 residents of the vulnerable
Florida Keys.

In Mexico, the coral-fringed island of Cozumel, popular
with scuba divers, was expected to be badly flooded after
taking the brunt of the storm on Friday. Many locals remained
in shelters, with the power out and no boats running.

Gonzalez said two deaths had been reported on the island.

One person also died in Cancun when a gust of wind blew out
a window, two died 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 him.

Mudslides caused by Wilma killed 10 people in Haiti this
week and Cuba was hit by drenching rains and tornadoes.

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.

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,
Michael Christie in Miami and Laura Myers in Key West)