British tourists cowered in shelters as Hurricane Wilma savaged Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula last night, with forecasters giving warning that the region would suffer dire consequences from 36 hours of high-powered wind and waves.
Packing winds of 145mph (233kmh) and dumping rain at the rate of two inches an hour, Wilma’s eye made landfall over the island of Cozumel, where about 1,000 holidaymakers were stranded after flights and ferry services were cancelled.
Cancun’s hotel zone, a vulnerable sand-spit skirted by a lagoon and the sea, was evacuated and sealed off by troops. The sea-surge was expected to deluge the narrow strip of land, sweeping beach sand onto the road and into hotels, shops and restaurants.
Rachel and Carl Farricker, of Altham, Lancashire, were among 1,000 tourists who sheltered in a sports hall on mainland Cancun, listening to the “dull roar” of the wind with about 80 other Britons.
In Playa del Carmen, newlyweds Ian and Harriet Judd said that their hotel was expected to flood, and that mattresses and furniture had been propped against the windows for protection. “It will make our honeymoon more memorable,” Mrs Judd said.
But the National Hurricane Centre (NHC) gave warning that while tourists might see the hurricane as a novelty, it was likely to devastate parts of Yucatan’s coastline, known as the Mayan Riviera, and wreck the homes and livelihoods of impoverished locals. “It’s going to be a long couple of days there,” Max Mayfield, director of the NHC, said. But Mexico’s misfortune could be Florida’s fortune, he added, as the storm ’s progress slowed last night. The longer it thrashed over Yucatan, delaying its path towards the US, he said, the greater the chance that it would lose power or break up.
Even so, Florida, which has been hit or sideswiped by seven hurricanes in fourteen months, continued to prepare for the worst. State authorities placed 7,500 National Guard troops, 18 Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters, 225 lorry loads of water and 200 of ice, and tens of thousands of packaged meals on standby. “We are battle-tested, well resourced, well-trained,” Jeb Bush, the Governor of Florida, said.
Queues formed at petrol stations, and tourists had long deserted the Florida Keys, with 70,000 residents also expecting evacuation orders today. Some business owners in the Keys erected light-hearted signs in honour of Wilma, which shares its name with that of cartoon character Fred Flintstone’s wife, the Times reports.