YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The World

Slow-Moving Wilma Pounds Yucatan

Resort areas of Cancun, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen bear the brunt of the Category 4 storm. Mexican officials are wary, but optimistic.

October 22, 2005|Sam Enriquez and Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writers

CANCUN, Mexico — Hurricane Wilma struck the Yucatan peninsula on Friday, pounding beach resorts and dozens of fishing hamlets with 140-mph winds and a 10-foot storm surge that sent water crashing over Cancun's white-sand beaches and into its exclusive hotel district.

The slow-moving hurricane reached the island of Cozumel south of here as a Category 4 storm just after dawn, weakening slightly as it cut a swath across the peninsula. The eye of the storm was expected to pass over Cancun today and then turn toward Florida, where authorities ordered an evacuation of low-lying areas on the state's southwest coast.

Felix Gonzalez Canto, the governor of Quintana Roo state, said Cancun, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen were taking the brunt of the storm. He said some buildings on Cozumel that had been reinforced against hurricane-strength winds had collapsed.

But as of early Friday evening there were no reports of deaths, and the governor expressed confidence that his state would be able to withstand the storm.

"We are sure we will get through this because among the people of Quintana Roo we have a strong culture of hurricane preparedness," Gonzalez Canto said.

The 35-mile-wide eye of the hurricane was taking as long as seven hours to pass over a given spot, leading Mexican officials to express concern that many people might be fooled by the eye's low winds and leave their shelters prematurely.

"We had [Hurricane] Emily three months ago, but this is much worse," said Marcos Cupul, 25, who waited out the storm in a downtown hotel. By late Friday, he and other guests sought refuge on the second floor as water seeped into the lobby.

An estimated 30,000 tourists remained in shelters and hotels in and around Cancun. But most of the city's 500,000 residents had been evacuated as the leading edge of the storm downed trees and flooded streets.

Downtown Cancun was deserted except for fire crews in yellow rain slickers, and all the area's department stores and boutiques were boarded up. Federal police sealed off the hotel zone to prevent looting.

"People warn us, and it's up to us to find safety," said Alberto Lemos, a real estate agent. "If things are bad you stay inside. If it's really bad you go hide in the bathroom."

Mexican meteorologists said Wilma was typical of late-season hurricanes: slow and erratic. Advancing to the north at less than 5 mph, it was expected to leave the Yucatan this evening after lingering over the peninsula more than 24 hours.

Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said the storm had "the potential to do catastrophic damage." Mexico, he said Friday, was "getting the worst of it right now."

Cuba's official news agency reported that 200,000 people had been evacuated from low-lying areas on the island's western coast across the Yucatan Channel from Mexico.

This week, as it lumbered westward in the Caribbean Sea, U.S. officials said Wilma had become the most intense hurricane detected in the Atlantic basin. Thirteen people were reported killed in Haiti and Jamaica.

After passing through the Yucatan, U.S. meteorologists said, Wilma would move from the Caribbean Sea into the Gulf of Mexico and then turn right toward Florida.

The longer Wilma spent over Yucatan, the less likely it was that the United States would face a dangerous storm.

"That would be terrible for Mexico, but it will mean we'll have a weaker storm in the Gulf of Mexico and later in the U.S.," Mayfield said.

In downtown Cancun on Friday, flood waters were lapping against doorways and the rain was horizontal. Tree trunks bent to the point of snapping.

"Exotic, wonderful Cancun," quipped Omar Lincona, as he surveyed the scene from the relative safety of the City Express Hotel, about three miles from the beach.

Lincona, a 22-year-old television director, had come to work the MTV Latin America's Video Music Awards ceremony, which was postponed shortly after he arrived.

"The show should still go on," he said.

About 1,500 people, including many tourists, were crowded into a dark, sweltering public recreation center in downtown Cancun, Associated Press reported. Some took shelter under plastic tarps because the roof had begun to leak.

Among the stranded tourists was 51-year-old Chicago resident Sam Greenberg. Having traveled to a remote area near Playa del Carmen, he didn't realize a hurricane was heading his way until he saw a group of men nailing boards to their windows.

"We were looking for a place to get away," Greenberg said. "But we got so far away, we didn't even hear about Wilma."

In the hours before Wilma struck, residents prepared for the storm with a sense of calm developed over years of experience.

"There's a culture of hurricanes in Cancun," said Juan Duran, 40, who stayed behind to keep an eye on beachfront time-share properties he manages. "At least once a year we have an alert. Sure, there's some panic attacks, but people know what to do -- they take it seriously."

On Friday morning, authorities turned off power throughout Cancun as a precautionary measure.

Wire services reported that on Cozumel, hundreds of residents and about 1,000 tourists were riding out the hurricane in shelters.

On Isla Mujeres, a popular island getaway just off the coast of Cancun, Mayor Manuela Godoy told a local radio station that the situation was critical. The island's salt flats were flooding and rising waters were threatening nearby buildings.

Godoy said local officials were considering arresting people who refused to take shelter.

As the storm began to wallop Yucatan on Friday, Mexican Interior Minister Carlos Abascal made an optimistic prediction: "The tragedy of loss of life will be avoided because the necessary preventive measures have been taken."


Enriquez reported from Cancun and Tobar from Mexico City. Carlos Martinez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

Los Angeles Times Articles