Sunday, October 23, 2005

Posted in Last Hour By Reuters: 'Wilma Ravages Mexican Coral Island Cozumel'

Wilma ravages Mexican coral island Cozumel

24 Oct 2005 02:54:46 GMT
Source: Reuters

TIPSHEET: Aid experts debunk post-disaster myths
(Updates with fresh detail and quotes. Previous CANCUN)

By Greg Brosnan

COZUMEL, Mexico, Oct 23 (Reuters) - Mexico's Cozumel island, a coral-fringed divers' paradise, was battered beyond recognition on Sunday after enduring three full days of Hurricane Wilma's vicious winds and rain.

Wilma's 145-mph (230-kph) winds smashed the cement dock that is Cozumel's lifeline to the mainland into car-sized chunks of concrete strewn about the seafront, some having crushed souvenir and jewelry stores.

As Navy helicopters finally managed to fly in emergency supplies on Sunday, it looked as if a giant wave had washed over the tiny Caribbean island, leaving it largely flooded and covered in debris.

"This is the most important thing in Cozumel. This is where everything comes in -- food, tourists, gasoline. I can't believe it," said resident Luis Hau, viewing the smashed dock.

Wilma, one of the fiercest hurricanes to hit Mexico, hung over the Yucatan Peninsula for three days after it struck on Thursday, blasting it with gale-force winds and sheets of rain. Seven people were killed, four in Cozumel.

Desolated families stood in thigh-deep water outside wrecked homes and called to emergency teams for food and water. Some used surfboards or kayaks to move about the streets.

"I had a nursery here. Where is my nursery? Twenty years of work are gone," cried Jesus Rios, who lost 30,000 ornamental plants and his life's investment when Wilma turned his tropical nursery into what looked like a paddy field.

The few tourists who had not evacuated huddled with locals, with no power or running water since the storm hit.

"The sea has broken everything," said Jose Mariscal, from Spain, staying in a hotel lobby with staff and their families.


Wilma wrought destruction across the "Maya Riviera," a strip of tropical coastline that draws planeloads of tourists to its pristine white sands, turquoise sea and Maya ruins.

The resort city of Cancun lay gutted after Wilma blew out windows, tore through shops and left hotel lobbies knee-deep in water and strewn with glass, plaster and other debris.

Swimming pools were full of sand and hotel ceilings were a mess of fallen tiles and tangled wires.

Where pristine beaches had been, jagged rocks poked out of gray water after Wilma tore away banks of white sand.

"It's going to take Cancun a year to recover. We can get the Coco Bongo club back up in three months but it will be a lot longer before tourists have the confidence to come back," said Argentine nightclub worker Gabriel Condi.

In the Paradise Beach hotel, part of the stairwell had collapsed. At a nearby mall, all the windows were blown out of stores and a restaurant.

"I lived through Hurricane Gilbert and this is far worse. It's truly terrible," said shop owner Carlos Martin del Campo as he loaded computers into his car to save them from looters, who had descended on stores across Cancun.

Visiting the area, President Vicente Fox told locals: "We are going to rebuild everything that is damaged, but the urgency now is to save lives."

As thousands lined up at town hall for pasta, crackers and canned tuna, Cancun Mayor Francisco Alor told reporters it could take six months for Mexico's biggest tourism city to recover.

An estimated 90 percent of hotels have suffered damage, local public works director Mario Castro said.

For Cozumel, where almost all 70,000 inhabitants depend on tourism, the outlook was grim.

"My concern is a couple of months down the line," said Cozumel guest house owner Kathleen Martin Kopelman. "For the people who live hand to mouth, who earn tips on Friday so they can eat on Saturday, no tourists means no food."

There was no indication of when Cancun airport would reopen or when roads out could be cleared for buses. (Additional reporting by Noel Randewich and Lisa Jucca in Cancun)

AlertNet news is provided by Reuters


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