People search for food in Cancun as storm recedes

As Hurricane Wilma ended its two-day rampage across the Yucatan Peninsula early yesterday, residents of this famous resort city picked through the wreckage of their shattered homes and lined up by the hundreds at the town hall for handouts of food. Others looted damaged shops for food and supplies, some later clashing occasionally with police who struggled to maintain order.

Thousands of tourists emerged from partially flooded shelters to search for food as well, surveying the damage from what officials said was the most destructive storm to hit the peninsula in recorded history.

Yesterday, much of the city was under at least 2 feet of water, electrical transformers and power lines lay in the streets, hundreds of storefronts were shattered, and thousands of homes were without roofs or were reduced to rubble.

Some areas of Cancun's white-sand beaches were washed away by 30-foot swells that slammed into the coastal strip of luxury hotels, shattering windows and sweeping into the alligator-infested lagoon on the other side of the road.

''Wherever you look, it's devastation," said Mayor Francisco Alor as he arrived for an emergency meeting at the town hall. ''We can't say how long it will take to rebuild Cancun, all we know is that we will rebuild this city."

In 1988 Hurricane Gilbert slammed into Cancun, killing hundreds of people and washing away beaches and inflicting damage that took years to repair.

Yesterday, power was out along the entire coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, and the Cancun airport was closed until further notice. But President Vicente Fox was expected to arrive by Army plane by last night to oversee relief efforts.

At least one person was killed by falling glass, another by a falling tree, and two people died in a gas explosion in Playa de Carmen, a resort town two hours south of Cancun that was devastated in the storm. Officials said they had not been able to establish contact with the islands of Cozumel, to the south, and Isla Mujeres, northeast of Cancun, since the hurricane knocked out power on Friday morning. Four decomposed bodies were found floating in floodwaters on Cozumel, but officials said it was unclear whether the deaths were related to the storm.

In Puerto Juarez, a fishing port on Cancun's northern edge, dozens of shacks were reduced to heaps of sticks and concrete.

''We've lost everything," said Alvero Flitie, 65, a farmer, who was searching the wreckage of his wood and tar-paper house. ''All we have is the clothes on our backs," reports Boston Globe. I.L.