Friday, October 28, 2005

Houston Chronicle, Oct. 25, 'Pummeled Resorts In Yucatan Receive Aid

Oct. 25, 2005, 11:40PM

Pummeled resorts in Yucatán receive aid

Coastal damage serious; tourism likely to suffer
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Foreign Service

CANCÚN, MEXICO - Military helicopters and cargo planes flew some of the first relief supplies into this battered resort city Tuesday in Hurricane Wilma's wake as officials began to get a better idea of the damage to Cozumel and Isla Mujeres, two islands popular among Texans.

From the vantage of a military helicopter flight to Cozumel, the beaches and resorts along the Caribbean coastline looked bruised but more than salvageable.

Drinking water was scarce, electricity remained out, and miles of large utility towers that held the lines carrying power to the beaches had tumbled into the western forest. But the expansive hotel complexes north of Playa del Carmen appeared from the air to have survived relatively unscathed. Tourists swam in the once again azure sea in front of some hotels, and waved to the helicopter overhead.

Still, it was clear Wilma did serious harm to the Caribbean coast, which accounts for more than a third of the country's $11 billion in annual tourism income. And the fallout was already being felt in Houston.

Kenneth Knezick, owner of Houston-based Island Dreams Travel, said that between now and mid-December, his company will be forced to cancel $150,000 worth of holidays to Cozumel, the No. 1 spot for American scuba divers in the world.

"It's going to cost us a lot of money and spoil a lot of people's holidays," he said.

But Knezick said he is confident that Mexico will rebuild and Cozumel and Cancún will again flourish.

"The Mexican government understands the importance of tourism to their country," he said.

President Vicente Fox and his finance minister, Francisco Gil Diaz, underscored that point Tuesday.

"We will take decisive action to reactivate the economy in the zone," said Diaz, promising "instant credit" for hotels wanting to rebuild.

But the priorities this week are to evacuate foreign tourists and restore electricity and water supplies, said Rodolfo Elizondo, Mexico's secretary of tourism.

Not yet counting costs
"We're just attending to the veins and tendons of things," said Elizondo, who was in Cancún on Tuesday to supervise recovery efforts. "We still haven't begun to look at the cost of the damage."

Although the Cancún airport's charter terminal was gutted by the storm, the main terminal was largely intact.

More than five flights an hour were taking off from Cancún Tuesday, before operations were ended just before nightfall, said Carlos Trueva, the airport operations director.

Most were charter company and Mexicana Airlines flights; such airlines as Continental and American hadn't yet begun sending in planes, but Trueva said he expected to hear from them soon.

That means many tourists are finally heading home.

"Thank God we're finally getting out of Dodge," said Trudy Rosser of Steubenville, Ohio, who was in line to board a USA3000 charter flight to Pittsburgh.

Also Tuesday, dozens of relief flights arrived in Cozumel and nearby Isla Mujeres, bringing more than 70 tons of beans, rice and other supplies to haggard residents. The operation was centered in the city of Merida, some 200 miles to the west.

"We'll fly until it's dark," said Manuel Gamez, one of the helicopter pilots.

Red Cross says 4 dead
Red Cross officials in Cozumel reported four dead, and more than three score lightly injured in the storm. Some 40 percent of the island's buildings were damaged to some degree, the officials said, and 10 percent were "destroyed."

"The hotels along the seafront are destroyed," said Miguel Tejera, a Red Cross official overseeing the unloading of the relief supplies at the airport. But he added that most of the damage entailed blown-out windows, flooded rooms and ruined bedding.

As in Cancún, most of the hotel buildings appeared intact, at least from the air.

No one was reported killed in the storm on Isla Mujeres, a much smaller island a few miles off Cancún. But the center of the island's town remained flooded Tuesday.

Chronicle reporter Dudley Althaus reported from Cancún, Cozumel and Isla Mujeres. Ioan Grillo, a special correspondent, reported from Mexico City.


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