- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 22, 2005

CANCUN, Mexico —Hurricane Wilma tore into Mexico’s resort-studded Mayan Riviera yesterday with torrential rain and shrieking wind, 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 at least 13 persons in Haiti and Jamaica, is expected to pummel the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula for two days, sparking fears of catastrophic damage. The forecast is for the storm to sideswipe Cuba before bearing down on Florida 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,” he said.

Officials said damage-assessment teams would not be able to reach Cozumel until late today, at the earliest.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Wilma officially made landfall about 3:30 p.m. local time, with the center of the storm’s eye hitting Cozumel.

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 8 p.m. EDT, the hurricane was about 440 miles southwest of Key West, Fla., and was moving northwest at 4 mph, the hurricane center said. The large storm’s outer rain bands were beginning to affect South Florida late yesterday, meteorologists said.

Emergency officials in Florida 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.

“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 an estimated 10,000-12,000 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.”

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.

At the Xbalamque Hotel, a downtown Cancun shelter for evacuees from beachfront resorts, American tourist Becky Hora, 37, watched floodwater rise up the steps toward the lobby as the wind 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.

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