October 23, 2005

Hurricane Wilma batters Mexico as it heads for Florida

By Noel Randewich

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexico's Caribbean beach resorts
were knee-deep in water and strewn with debris on Sunday after
Hurricane Wilma roared through, smashing homes and killing at
least seven people before taking aim at Florida.

Relentless howling winds and torrential rain left famed
seaside towns badly flooded, and thousands of sullen tourists
looked for a way out after three nights in dark, stuffy refuges
with no light or running water.

Homes, hotels and stores were wrecked all along the "Maya
Riviera," which pulls in millions of tourists with its white
sand beaches, coral-filled seas and nearby Mayan ruins.

Cancun's luxury beachfront hotels have been cut off by
water since Friday after the sea roared hundreds of yards

"It looks like a war zone out here," said British tourist
Thomas Hall as he glanced down a flooded avenues filled with
collapsed electricity towers, fallen trees and debris.

He was one of 300 tourists who took shelter in a cramped
Cancun theater and ventured out for the first time on Sunday
morning to line up at a pay phone to call worried relatives.

The Mexican army prepared to send in trucks and planes with
food, water, medical kits and building materials along the
coast and to the island of Cozumel, a popular scuba diving
resort that was bore the brunt of Wilma.

Four people were killed in Cozumel and another three on the
mainland, officials said. President Vicente Fox was due to fly
to the area on Sunday.

Wilma, one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record,
had crawled slowly across Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, before
finally heading out into the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday on its
way to southern Florida.

The storm lost some of its punch over land and its winds
dropped to around 100 mph (160 kph), making it a Category 2
hurricane on the five-stage Saffir-Simpson scale.

It was expected to pick up speed and power in a run past


Forecasters said it would hit the southwest Florida coast
and the fragile Florida Keys on Monday morning, bringing a
storm surge of about 8-13 feet.

That would exceed the surge of Hurricane Charley last year,
then the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history with more
than $15 billion in damage.

"This is a very big storm, giving us a larger storm surge
over a greater area," National Hurricane Center hurricane
deputy director Ed Rappaport said on Sunday.

U.S. space agency NASA put its workforce on alert and was
expected to close its Kennedy Space Center in central Florida.

In Mexico's Playa del Carmen resort, trees and concrete
electricity poles lay all over the streets. Thatched roofs of
hotels were torn to shreds and the roofs and windows were
broken in most homes near the coast.

"Everything is destroyed. This was a hurricane that made
history," said Benigno Palma, a construction worker who rode
out the storm in a hurricane shelter.

"We have money, but you can't eat that," said Limber de
Jesus Orantes, another laborer who complained stores were
closed and there was no food to buy.

Dozens of people took advantage of the chaos to loot
stories, grabbing TVs, fridges and clothes. At one store,
police beat the thieves with sticks and fired shots into the
water to try to scatter them.

At 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT), Wilma was about 90 miles
northeast of Cancun and about 315 miles southwest of Key West,
the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

Mudslides caused by Wilma killed 10 people in Haiti last
week .

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,
Jim Loney in Miami and Laura Myers in Key West)