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Wilma Lashes Mexico Resorts

The death toll is at seven and may rise as the storm lingers over the Yucatan. It may gain strength as it heads to Florida, officials say.

October 23, 2005|Sam Enriquez and Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writers

CANCUN, Mexico — Hurricane Wilma devastated the Yucatan Peninsula and its Riviera Maya resorts for a second day Saturday, dumping as much as 5 feet of rain, ripping roofs off buildings where people had taken shelter, and scraping tons of sand from some of its most popular beaches. At least seven people were killed, but many feared that the death toll would rise.

Thousands remained stranded and incommunicado on nearby islands, including Cozumel, about 50 miles south of here. Venturing out during a pause in the storm Saturday morning as the eye passed over this city of 500,000, residents of Cancun discovered widespread damage, from the luxury seaside resorts to the humble neighborhoods of tin-roofed homes.

By late Saturday afternoon, Wilma had weakened to a Category 2 storm. But the National Hurricane Center in Miami, announcing hurricane watches for Florida, said the storm could strengthen as it passed over the Gulf of Mexico. The storm-tracking center said Wilma could arrive in Florida by Monday.

Two people died of heart attacks, officials said, and another person was killed by a falling tree. On Cozumel, a navy rescue mission sighted four bodies, Associated Press reported early today. Many more were feared dead, but the full extent of the disaster may not be known for days because it remained too dangerous for relief workers to venture outside.

Bernabe Moreno, a 21-year-old hotel employee, fled in horror from a shelter set up inside a multiplex theater in Cancun when the building's roof started to come off at the height of the storm. He and 1,800 other refugees moved from one theater in the multiplex to the next.

"There were pieces of the roof falling on us," Moreno said.

The evacuees, dispersed over nine theaters in the multiplex, ended up in packed into three, and were finally forced to escape to a concrete parking garage.

"It was horrible, it was scary, and we had 1,000 people without bathrooms," said Jose Manuel Rubio, from Chile. "They say they're going to take us somewhere for the night, but where?"

Mexican media reported that the roof was also peeled off a Cancun gymnasium where 2,000 people had taken shelter, many of them foreign tourists.

Wilma arrived on the mainland early Friday as a Category 4 storm, and parked itself over the region for nearly two days.

"This is the same as having four or five hurricanes of this size pass all at once," Quintana Roo Gov. Felix Gonzalez Canto said. "Quintana Roo has never lived through a storm like this one. The level of destruction is without precedent."

Cancun's exclusive hotel district suffered serious damage, with the Hyatt especially hard hit. Luxury hotels were pounded with 30-foot waves, and the road that links the hotels' peninsula beaches to the mainland was flooded for much of Saturday.

Meteorologist Alberto Hernandez of the Mexican weather service estimated that about 1.3 million cubic yards of sand would be displaced from the Cancun and Cozumel beaches.

Beaches up and down the Yucatan coast were washed away.

"The people in Playa del Carmen have told us that the ocean ate up the beach," said Leo Salinas, a meteorologist for the Mexican weather service, referring to a town about 40 miles south of Cancun.

Last week, when Wilma was a Category 5 hurricane rumbling westward in the Caribbean, it set a record for the lowest atmospheric pressure recorded in an Atlantic basin storm, making it the most powerful Atlantic hurricane since records have been kept.

After reaching land, Wilma may have set another record. On Isla Mujeres, off the coast of Cancun, a weather station reported 64 inches of rain over a 24-hour period. Mexican weather officials said that, if confirmed, it would be a record for rainfall in Mexico, and more than triple the amount left by the last two hurricanes.

Cancun endured more than 24 hours of hurricane-force winds, with a few hours of respite when the hurricane's eye passed over the city.

Some took advantage of the calm to stock up on necessities, even if it meant breaking into stores. "In convenience stores, people entered to take food and drinks, and also other items not needed in an emergency," Reforma newspaper reported.

Twelve people were arrested on suspicion of looting in Cancun, Mexico's official news agency said. Mexican television showed people wading through knee-deep water in Cancun's poorer neighborhoods.

"I'm afraid for my children," Oillia Garcia told TV Azteca. "We're a little desperate, a little afraid."

In downtown Cancun, the scene was one of devastation.

Along Tulum Avenue, trailer trucks were overturned. Storefronts were ripped off buildings, and metal signs were lying about. The four-story headquarters of Mexicana Airlines was smashed in. Trees were stripped of leaves, and cars were almost submerged.

Fallen debris made many downtown streets impassable.

Winds reaching 145 mph leveled walls at a prison in Playa del Carmen, allowing five inmates to escape. Police captured one, but the other four are at large. A similar incident took place in Cancun, Mexican TV reported.

In Cuba on Saturday, hundreds of thousands were evacuated ahead of the hurricane. President Fidel Castro exhorted his people to prepare for the coming storm with "discipline."

U.S. meteorologists said Saturday that a tropical depression south of Puerto Rico had strengthened into a tropical storm. The season's 22nd storm is called Alpha -- for the first time, hurricane namers ran out of letters in the English alphabet and turned to the Greek one.

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

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