Hurricane Wilma tore into Mexico's resort-studded Mayan Riviera, where thousands of stranded tourists hunkered down Friday in hotel ballrooms and shelters pounded by torrential rains and shrieking winds as the streets of Cancun filled with water.
The fearsome Category 4 storm, which killed 13 people in Haiti and Jamaica, was expected to pummel the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula for two days, sparking fears of catastrophic damage. It is then expected to sideswipe Cuba before bearing down on Florida.
Wilma's core, the eyewall whirling about its center, hit the cruise-ship magnet of Cozumel island with sustained winds of 140 mph. The wind bent palm trees and the surf washed away tiki huts on hotel beaches. Power was cut early Friday to most parts of Cancun - a standard safety precaution.
Shop windows were shattered, cars were crushed under fallen trees and pay phones jutted from waist-deep floodwaters in the famed hotel zone. At the same time, its 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.
About 7,000 residents were evacuated from the coastal fishing village of La Coloma in Cuba's southern Pinar del Rio province. 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.
In Florida, emergency officials on Friday issued evacuation orders for the west coast town of Naples and a nearby island, which the storm was expected to reach Monday. Florida Keys residents also were asked to start leaving.
At 2 p.m. EDT, the center of Wilma's eye was about 15 miles east-southeast of Cozumel, Mexico, or about 435 miles southwest of Key West, Fla., according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. It was heading northwest at about 5 mph. The hurricane's eye stretched for about 35 miles - nearly the distance from Cozumel to Cancun.
No injuries were reported as the hurricane moved in. Cancun Red Cross director Ricardo Portugal said the biggest problem so far had been ``nervous crises,'' and 11 pregnant women were ferried to hospitals because of worries the storm had induced labor.
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.
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.
The Stouts, at least, had food and coffee. Devon Anderson, 21, of Sacramento, Calif., was sharing 10 rooms at a rundown Cozumel school with 200 other Americans. At the Xbalamque Hotel, a downtown Cancun shelter for evacuees from beachfront resorts, American tourist Becky Hora, 37, watched floodwaters rise up the steps toward the lobby as winds howled and trees thudded to the ground.
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. Wilma briefly strengthened to Category 5 and became the most intense hurricane recorded in the Atlantic Ocean with 882 millibars of pressure, breaking the record low of 888 set by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Lower pressure brings faster winds, the Guardian Unlimited reports.
In a weary world of endless US military interventions, sanctions, trade tariffs and chaos, let’s pause and take stock of the shining house on the hill