October 25, 2005

Tourists flee hurricane-hit Cancun, beaches ruined

By Noel Randewich and Greg Brosnan

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - Desperate tourists scrambled to
flee Mexico's Caribbean coast on Tuesday after Hurricane Wilma
forced many into damp, stinking shelters for days, devastated
resorts and swallowed up famed white beaches.

More than 1,000 visitors lined up in the heat at the newly
reopened Cancun airport, shouting and arguing as they tried to
get aboard the first flights out since Wilma trashed the area
late last week.

"I guess we're screwed," said Paul Garvey from St Louis,
Missouri, who missed his charter flight home. An Italian
tourist screamed at police trying to maintain order.

Some 4,000 people flew out of Cancun, while 7,000 more
departed from the city of Merida. Mexico's Tourism Ministry
said all tourists who wanted to leave would be gone by Sunday.

Wilma rampaged along Mexico's "Maya Riviera" late last week
before it turned sharply, whacking Cuba and southern Florida.
It was well off the U.S. East Coast on Tuesday and losing
strength as it headed for Canada's Atlantic provinces.

Fierce winds and flooding from Wilma, one of the strongest
Atlantic storms recorded, killed at least seven people and
battered Cancun, nearby Playa del Carmen, the scuba diving
island of Cozumel and smaller resorts along the coast.

Many locals, especially poor people housed in flimsy
shacks, lost their homes and belongings. Hotels, shops and
other buildings lay in ruins.

About 20,000 vacationers spent four or five days in smelly,
cramped shelters where food and drink were rationed and some
ended up defecating in buckets because the toilets overflowed.

"We were like animals," said Jay Abrams from New Jersey.

Others blamed the U.S. government for not getting them out
in time. "Tell Bush he left his people here," one woman shouted
from a crowd of American tourists waiting outside a hotel.

Angry seas rushed several hundred yards inland, washing
away much of Cancun's soft sand. The popular Playa Delfines
beach was swallowed by the storm surge.


"It's very ugly. I'd say there were 30 metres (98 feet)
before and now there are less than 10 (33 feet)," said
restaurant worker Auric Oliver, looking down at the narrowed
strip of sand.

The beach in front of the luxury Marriott hotel was
completely washed away. Huge chunks of concrete debris lay
around the badly damaged building.

Cancun was planned and built from scratch on a spit of
mosquito-infested sand in the late 1970s. It lost many of its
beaches to Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 but replaced them with
sand brought from elsewhere at great expense.

"It's not that bringing sand back is a big problem, it's
working out a system to keep it in place." said Eloan Galindo,
head of Cancun municipality's ecology department.

The devastated beaches and the heavy damage to the luxury
hotels along the coast, known as the Maya Riviera, appeared to
spell ruin for the key winter holiday season.

The tourism ministry estimated the damage at $800 million
but hotel owners said it was nearer $1.5 billion.

Despite the devastation, Cancun was returning to life.

Vendors sold sun hats, leather sandals and sea shell
necklaces amid the rubble of a crafts market.

A honeymooning couple sunbathed on the patio of their

"It's gorgeous. We're here so we might as well make the
most of it," said bikini-clad Nikki Mathis, 25, from Indiana.

Cruise ships making stopovers at Caribbean resorts in
Mexico are having to use substitute ports because of damage to
piers and a lack of open bars and restaurants.

Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines, owned by the world's No.
1 cruise company Carnival Corp., said it had a team ready to
fly to Cozumel to assess damage.