October 23, 2005

Hurricane Wilma aims at Florida after Mexico chaos

By Noel Randewich

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - Hurricane Wilma bore down on
Florida on Sunday after devastating Mexico's Caribbean resorts
with flood water and wild winds that smashed thousands of homes
and killed at least seven people.

Dazed tourists waded through knee-deep water in the streets
of Cancun, one of the world's top beach spots, to seek food and
water after three nights in damp shelters without electricity.

"People are starting to get sick. Some of the elderly
people are becoming ill. There is water but they are telling us
to conserve it," said American Doug Ruby, a computer security

Troops drove around handing out food packages but luxury
beachfront hotels on a long spit of sand were cut off by water
since Friday after the sea roared hundreds of yards (meters)

Relentless howling winds and torrential rain ruined homes,
hotels and stores all along the "Maya Riviera," which pulls in
millions of tourists with its white sand beaches, coral-filled
seas and nearby Mayan ruins.

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

Wilma, one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record,
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, swipe western
Cuba and hit 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 work force on alert and was
expected to close its Kennedy Space Center in central Florida.

Rainfall from Wilma pounded Cuba's tobacco-growing Pinar
del Rio province and Havana on Sunday and the government
evacuated half a million people from low-lying areas.

In Mexico, four people were killed on the island of
Cozumel, a well-known scuba diving site, and another three on
the mainland after days of pounding. President Vicente Fox was
due to fly to the area on Sunday.

In the 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
stores, 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 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT), Wilma was about 285 miles (460
km) 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 Lisa Jucca and Greg Brosnan in
Mexico, Jim Loney in Miami, and Laura Myers in Key West)