Hurricane Wilma’s fierce winds and rain battered Mexico’s famed Caribbean beach resorts on Friday, knocking over trees and trapping thousands of nervous tourists inside cramped shelters, reports Reuters
Powerful waves swallowed up white sand beaches in the popular resort of Cancun and electricity was cut all along Mexico’s “Maya Riviera” and on the island of Cozumel, a favourite of scuba divers and cruise ship passengers.
Sturdy tropical trees danced in howling winds and others lay toppled in empty and flooded streets in the resort of Playa del Carmen, just south of Cancun. Snapped electricity cables dangled above the streets, sending sparks flying.
“The sound of the wind is what is frightening,” said Rossy Mischne, who was holed up inside the Cozumel hotel where she works.
Stinging rains gathered strength as Wilma, a Category 4 hurricane, moved in slowly from the Caribbean with winds of 145 mph (230 kph). Forecasters warned the storm could cause catastrophic damage.
Emergency officials warned the slow-moving storm could linger over the Yucatan peninsula and dump torrential rains across southern Mexico, raising the risk of lethal mudslides and damage to coffee crops.
At one gymnasium in Cancun, about 1,600 people slept on mattresses and ate canned food. A local entrepreneur sold T-shirts with the hopeful logo: “I Survived Hurricane Wilma.”
Mexican emergency officials said more than 50,000 people were evacuated and about 17,000 were put in shelters such as schools, gymnasiums and hotel conference rooms further inland.
Hundreds of construction workers, most from the southern state of Chiapas, were moved from their temporary lodgings in outdoor camps and building sites in Playa del Carmen.
In a kindergarten classroom near the beach, 50 men sat on the concrete floor of a classroom, too cramped to lie down, eating with their hands from cans of donated tuna fish.
This sucks,” said Juan Cruz Perez, a 21-year-old metal worker from the Gulf state of Tabasco.
The storm was expected to dump 10 to 20 inches (25 to 50 cm) of rain across the Yucatan and isolated areas of mountainous western Cuba. Some areas could get up to 40 inches (100 cm), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in Miami.
Mudslides caused by rains from Wilma killed 10 people in mudslides in Haiti earlier this week.
CUBA, FLORIDA IN WILMA’S SIGHTS
Cuba was also already feeling Wilma’s fury with up to 7 inches (17.1 cm) of rain in the west and 18-foot (6-metre) waves pounding the Isle of Youth off its south coast, the Cuban weather institute said.
Cuba evacuated more than 350,000 people from low-lying areas and precarious buildings in case Wilma headed straight for the island over the weekend.
Wilma was expected to crash into heavily populated southern Florida late on Sunday, giving Florida residents another couple of days to stock up on drinking water and gasoline.
Authorities in the Keys, connected to mainland Florida by a single road, ordered tourists out and were considering telling the islands’ 80,000 residents to evacuate.
Wilma became the strongest Atlantic storm on record in terms of barometric pressure on Wednesday.
At 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT) on Friday, Wilma’s center was 35 miles (55 km) southeast of Cozumel and was moving toward the north-northwest at 5 mph (7 km/h), according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
Wilma was expected to miss Gulf of Mexico oil and gas facilities battered by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August and September, but Florida’s orange groves were at risk.
The hurricane season has six weeks left and has already spawned three of the most-intense storms on record. Hurricane experts say the Atlantic has entered a period of heightened storm activity that could last 20 more years.