Wilma rakes Mexico coast
Saturday, October 22, 2005
The hurricane is forecast to sideswipe Cuba before bearing down on Florida on Monday.
CANCUN, Mexico -- Hurricane Wilma tore into Mexico's resort-studded Mayan Riviera on Friday, filling the streets with water, shattered glass and debris as thousands of stranded tourists hunkered down in hotel ballrooms and emergency shelters.
Packing winds of 140 mph, the storm shattered windows and downed trees that crushed cars on the island of Cozumel, a popular cruise-ship stop. Pay phones jutted from floodwaters in the famed hotel zone.
The fearsome Category 4 storm, which killed 13 people in Haiti and Jamaica, was expected to pummel the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula for two days, sparking fears of catastrophic damage. It is forecast to sideswipe Cuba before bearing down on Florida on Monday.
"Tin roofing is flying through the air everywhere. Palm trees are falling down. Signs are in the air and cables are snapping," Julio Torres said by telephone from the Red Cross office in Cozumel.
"Not even emergency vehicles have been able to go out on the streets, because the winds are too strong."
Officials said damage assessment teams couldn't reach Cozumel until late today at the earliest.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Wilma officially made landfall about 3:30 p.m. Central time, with the center of the storm's eye hitting Cozumel.
The wind bent palm trees and the surf washed away tiki huts on hotel beaches. Power was cut early Friday to most parts of Cancun -- a standard safety precaution.
Shop windows were shattered, cars were crushed under fallen trees and pay phones jutted from waist-deep floodwaters in the famed hotel zone.
Officials loaded more than 1,000 people into buses and vans after a downtown cultural center being used as a temporary shelter suddenly became uninhabitable, Cancun Red Cross director Ricardo Portugal said without elaborating.
At the same time, Wilma's outer bands pounded western Cuba, where the government evacuated nearly 370,000 people. Forecasters said Wilma could bring more than 3 feet of rain to parts of Cuba.
Waves of up to 21 feet crashed on the extreme westernmost tip of Cuba and heavy rains cut off several small communities. About 7,000 residents were evacuated from the coastal fishing village of La Coloma in Cuba's southern Pinar del Rio province.
"We thought we'd be spending a lot less time here," Maria Elena Torre said at a shelter set up inside a Cuban boarding school. "Now we have no idea how long we'll be here."
Civil defense official Adolfo Nilo Moreno said the 725 evacuees at the school were likely to remain in place until Tuesday or Wednesday.
"Luckily, we have enough food for four months," primarily rice, chicken, bread and milk, he said.
At 7 p.m. Friday, the hurricane was about 440 miles southwest of Key West, Fla., and was moving northwest at about 4 mph, the hurricane center said. The large storm's outer rain bands were beginning to affect South Florida late Friday, meteorologists said.
Emergency officials in Florida on Friday issued evacuation orders for the west coast town of Naples and a nearby island. Florida Keys residents also were asked to leave. Forecasters said the storm should weaken before reaching Florida Sunday.
"It's going to be a long couple of days here for the Yucatan Peninsula," hurricane center director Max Mayfield said.
Mexican officials said about 20,000 tourists were at shelters and hotels on the mainland south of Cancun, and 10,000 to 12,000 were in Cancun itself. About 50 hotels there were evacuated.
"Now is the time to save lives and protect the population, and we are working on that," Mexican President Vicente Fox said. "Afterward, we will begin the phase of helping citizens and reconstruction."
Hotels being used as shelters pushed furniture up against windows that weren't boarded up, and some had several inches of water in rooms and hallways as rain entered through broken windows. People at shelters slept under plastic sheeting.
Juan Luis Flores, an emergency services official in Quintana Roo state, said about 65,000 people were evacuated. Mexico's civil defense chief, Carmen Segura, assured people "their families are protected as they should be."
But instead of luxury hotel suites over a turquoise sea, many tourists found themselves sleeping on the floors of hotel ballrooms, schools and gymnasiums reeking of sweat because there was no power or air conditioning.
Scott and Jamie Stout of Willisville, Ill., were spending their honeymoon on a Cancun basketball court with a leaky roof.
"After one more day of this, I believe people will start getting cranky," said Scott Stout, 26. "Things could get messy."
The Stouts, at least, had food and coffee. Devon Anderson, 21, of Sacramento, Calif., was sharing 10 rooms at a rundown Cozumel school with 200 other Americans.
"We are all sleeping on the floor," Anderson said. "There's no food, no water."
At the Xbalamque Hotel, a downtown Cancun shelter for evacuees from beachfront resorts, American tourist Becky Hora, 37, watched floodwaters rise up the steps toward the lobby as winds howled and trees thudded to the ground.
"It's awful," she said. "I thought that last night we had made it through the worst of it. And now it turns out this is only the beginning. It's hard to stay calm."
Ronnie Croley, 46, said he lost power at his Madison, Miss., home for four days after Hurricane Katrina struck, then he helped his company clean up a factory damaged by Hurricane Rita.
"This was supposed to be a little break for us, but now here we are again," he said.
Wilma briefly strengthened to Category 5 and became the most intense hurricane recorded in the Atlantic Ocean with 882 millibars of pressure, breaking the record low of 888 set by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Lower pressure brings faster winds.