October 26, 2005

Frantic tourists rush from Cancun

By Greg Brosnan and Noel Randewich

CANCUN, Mexico (Reuters) - George Palafox took his wife to
Cancun for its golden beaches and glorious weather but after
Hurricane Wilma tore up Mexico's Caribbean coast, he ended up
armed with rocks and chunks of broken pipe to defend her.

When Wilma ripped in from the Caribbean last Thursday,
about 20,000 tourists were forced out of luxury beachfront
hotels and into makeshift shelters across this popular resort.

Palafox, his wife and dozens of other foreign tourists
holed up inside an isolated school and had to arm themselves
with pipes and rocks when local residents warned them that
looters who were tearing apart stores in the area planned to go
after them next.

Although the thugs never came, the ordeal took its toll.

"There were 21 of us in a room, lying on a floor. We were
either praying or crying. I broke down and cried," Palafox, a
52 year-old Texan, said on Wednesday as he and his wife finally
struck lucky and got a plane ticket out.

"It has been like hell," he said, visibly relieved as they
made their way to Cancun's hurricane-battered airport on their
way home to San Antonio.

There was unbridled chaos at the airport and airline
offices in town as frantic tourists scrambled for flights after
six nights of sleeping alongside strangers with little food or
water, overflowing toilets and intense heat.

Police set up roadblocks outside the airport, allowing past
only those with firm reservations on flights leaving in the
next few hours. Everyone else was turned away.

In central Cancun, tourists who had formed lines from
before dawn checked their luggage with airline staff at a
makeshift desk in the middle of a muddy traffic circle. Nearby,
hundreds of others still stood in line.


"Oh, my God, I can't wait. I just want to go home," said
Karen Jensen, an American sitting in her wheelchair as her
husband tried to get tickets and she recalled their six nights
in shelters.

"I only have some light pain pills. It was tough trying to
move around people in the dark," she said. "I would not want to
do it again."

Up to a dozen people were killed by Wilma in Mexico, far
fewer than feared given the destruction it caused to Cancun,
the coral reef island of Cozumel and resorts along the "Maya

Much of the sand from Cancun's famous beaches was ripped
away by huge waves and major hotels were battered by the
storms, although most will be able to rebuild.

Some hope to open their doors again for at least part of
the high season between now and the end of the year, but others
said recovery would take longer.

Mexico's evacuation plan undoubtedly saved lives but many
tourists have felt abandoned in the days since.

"We had to loot shops to get food," said Scottish tourist
Mark Drysdale, who came on vacation with his brother. "It was
terrible. It was an absolute hell-hole."

At a hotel in downtown Cancun, tourists still spend cold
nights asleep on pool lounges and plastic chairs on the patio,
covered with towels and playing cards to pass the time.

There was very little privacy, much less the romance that
many had planned when they booked their Caribbean vacations.

"Thursday was our wedding anniversary and last night was
the first night we got to sleep side by side," said Lori Lohse
from Florida.