Saturday, October 22, 2005

Wilma Stalls Over Cancun - 'Hardly Any Buildings Undamaged. . .' - Isla Mujeres Gets Record Rainfall: 6 ft in 2 days, 27 ft Waves, 24 More Hours

Wilma lingers over Yucatan

From correspondents in Cancun

October 23, 2005

HURRICANE Wilma flooded Mexico's Caribbean beach resorts, smashed homes and killed at least two people today in a slow-moving rampage across the Yucatan peninsula.

Howling 185 km/h winds collapsed buildings, uprooted trees and confined thousands of worried tourists to cramped, sweltering shelters for a third day.

Two people died at the resort town of Playa del Carmen, which is popular with Europeans, when a gas tank exploded, the state governor said.

"It's a monster. It is roaring all the time," said Guadalupe Torroella, a resident in the low-lying resort city of Cancun, where the sea rushed onto the land and flooded many international hotels.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said six Australians were located in a shelter at a Cancun shopping centre. DFAT believed another Australian had sought refuge at a shelter in Playa de Carmen.

Florida was next in line for a battering. Authorities there were taking no risks after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, and today ordered mandatory evacuations, starting with 80,000 residents of the vulnerable Florida Keys.

The longer Wilma stays over Yucatan, the weaker it will be when it heads across the Gulf of Mexico toward Florida, expected later today.

It has already lost some strength, and was downgraded to a Category 3 on the five-stage Saffir-Simpson scale, but is still strong enough to cause massive damage and take more lives.

Resort island Cozumel, popular with scuba divers, took the brunt of the storm yesterday and most communications were cut.

At least five flimsy homes in Playa del Carmen were knocked down and much of the town was flooded with knee-high seawater.

In one shelter converted from a kindergarten, 40 migrant workers huddled in a small, damp room. They had only eaten half a can of tuna each in the last 24 hours.

"We need water, food and clothes," pleaded Carlos Vaca, a construction worker from the state of Tabasco.

"I have lived through three hurricanes and this is the worst," said Alberto Pat, head of Playa del Carmen's tourist police force, which was patrolling to prevent looting.

The front of one store in the town was ripped off, a bus station roof had collapsed, and cars lay crushed by fallen trees. At a nearby jail, five prisoners escaped into the jungle after a fence blew down.

"Never in history have we seen something like this," Felix Gonzalez, the governor of the state of Quintana Roo, told CNN, adding that the explosion of a gas tank in Playa del Carmen had killed two and injured several others.

The Yucatan peninsula, famous for its turquoise seas, white sand and Mayan ruins, has been lashed by Wilma since Thursday. It hovered over Cancun today, drifting slowly northward, and seemed certain to continue into tonight.

Wilma dumped 59 cm of rain yesterday on Isla Mujeres off Cancun, an unprecedented downpour for Mexico.

"We are talking about a record hurricane as far as rain is concerned," said meteorologist Alberto Hernandez. He said Wilma was unusually big with a diameter of 800 km.

Thousands of stranded tourists huddled nervously in dank, sweaty gymnasiums, hotels and schools as the luxury hotels and wooden beach cabins where many had stayed took a beating.

In one Playa del Carmen hotel doubling as a shelter where there has been no electricity or running water for two days, Scott Whitcher stood on his balcony and bathed in the rain.

"We are very fortunate to be in here. We were in a palm hut. I bet there is nothing left. I cannot wait for this to be over," the 38-year-old San Francisco resident said.

In one Cancun hotel where the windows were smashed by the wind, tourists nailed up tables to keep out the rain.

"It was like an explosion when they blew in. The windows were flexing like crazy," said Randy Lacy, a tourist from Chicago.

About 1,600 tourists in one gymnasium shelter were evacuated overnight to safer locations just before the roof blew off, a city official told Reuters.

Mudslides caused by Wilma killed 10 people in Haiti earlier this week and Cuba was reeling as the storm drenched the west of the island and unleashed tornadoes. Cuba evacuated 368,000 people as it braced for coastal storm surges and floods.

Wilma is expected to head off into the Gulf of Mexico once it finishes pounding Yucatan and could hit heavily populated southern Florida by Monday morning.

Forecasters expect it to weaken by then, but authorities in the Florida Keys ordered residents out from noon today. Tourists have already been evacuated.

This hurricane season has spawned three of the most intense storms on record. Experts say the Atlantic has entered a period of heightened storm activity that could last 20 more years.

Mexico City - Hurricane Wilma had left severe damage in its wake Saturday on the Caribbean coast of Mexico\'s Yucutan Peninsula.

Felix Gonzalez, governor of Quintana Roo state, said 'damages on an unprecedented scale' had been caused in the city of Cancun with 600,000 residents and on islands along the Caribbean coast.

Tourists and residents were brought to safe shelters, according to the Mexican interior ministry. Meanwhile, Cuba has evacuated 559,000 people before the storm hits the country on Sunday.

Hurricane-hit areas on the Mexican coast were without electricity Saturday while Cancun saw metre-high water levels which in parts reached the third storey of hotels near the beach.

Mexican authorities were cut off Saturday from the resort island of Cozumel.

Metre-high waves whipped coasts in the region and the island of Isla Mujeres had more than 1,500 litres of rainfall per square metre within 24 hours, the national Mexican weather service said.

There were reports of severe damage, but presently all connections to Cozumel were disrupted, said Gonzalez.

Radio messages had put the death toll at two, the daily Diario de Yucatan reported. Official figures were not available.

Half of the island's 150,000 residents, about 60 kilometres south of Cancun, had fled the island on time. The remaining people, including about 800 tourists, had found refuge in protective quarters. Five people were reported injured.

Authorities say Wilma's impact combines 'four or five ordinary hurricanes' at once and was not simply the consequence of extreme wind speeds, but also resulted from the slowness of the over 800 kilometre-wide hurricane, said Gonzalez.

Hardly any building in Cancun, one of Mexico's worst-hit cities, was without damage.

Wilma's eye is moving at only six kilometres per hour in a north- westerly direction over Yucatan's northern tip.

The hurricane weakened slightly Saturday and the U.S. hurricane centre in Miami rated Wilma down to a category 3 storm with wind speeds of 205 kilometres per hour.

Hurricane alerts were raised in both Florida and Cuba prompting the latter to evacuate 559,000 people as heavy rainfall, landslides and floods were feared.

Wilma, which has been rated 'very dangerous', was expected to hit the U.S. coast late Monday in Florida, where evacuations in high-risk areas such as the Florida Keys had begun on Friday.

Long queues formed at petrol stations and traffic backed up on major highways as residents sought to drive to safety. Authorities are now bracing themselves for the seventh hurricane in 14 months.

Residents of Sanibel island near Fort Myers have been ordered to evacuate. Authorities in Collier County and Naples on Florida's southwestern coast hope to have completed the evacuation by Sunday.

Banks are to keep their counters open for as long as possible to allow residents to withdraw money, the daily Orlando Sentinel reported.

© dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur


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