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Wilma Lashes at Florida; Yucatan Is Left in Tatters

October 24, 2005|Sam Enriquez and John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writers

NAPLES, Fla. — As Florida braced for a strike early this morning by a strengthening Hurricane Wilma, Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula remained staggered and chaotic with an estimated 15,000 people left homeless by the storm.

Looters ransacked shops in Cancun's downtown commercial district Sunday, overwhelming the city's small police force. With sofas and mattresses perched on their roofs, cars moved slowly through knee-deep water on Lopez Portillo Street, a main thoroughfare.

The hurricane was expected to punch ashore near Marco Island in southwest Florida about dawn, bringing 115-mph winds, a surge of seawater as high as 17 feet along portions of the coast and possibly tornadoes.

At 1 a.m. today, Wilma was a Category 3 storm with its center about 100 miles west of Key West and 140 miles southwest of Naples, moving northeast at 18 mph, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said. Hurricane-force winds stretched as far as 85 miles from its center.

For storm-fatigued Floridians, it will be the eighth encounter with a hurricane in little more than 14 months.

Though Wilma claimed at least seven lives in Mexico and more than a dozen in the Caribbean, authorities in the Florida Keys estimated that about 80% of the island chain's year-round population had not heeded an official order to evacuate, the fourth such order this hurricane season.

"All I can tell the people in the Keys who are going to ride this one out: One of these days, your luck is going to run out," Craig Fugate, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said in evident frustration. By Sunday night, some flooding, strong winds and power outages were reported in Key West.

A day after Hurricane Wilma smashed through the Yucatan, about 90% of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo remained without power. Officials were working to bring generators into Cancun and the nearby coastal town of Playa del Carmen to provide electricity for local hospitals.

Mexican President Vicente Fox, touring the region with his wife, said he would seek an additional $280 million for disaster relief from Mexico's Congress.

Tourists and residents wandered the streets of Cancun in search of food and water. A line of people stretched over three blocks for packages of rice, beans and other staples distributed by sailors at City Hall. The food ran out within an hour.

Wilma struck hardest along a 14-mile stretch of high-rise hotels that spans Cancun's south coast, where the storm damage could run to tens of millions of dollars. Winds broke windows, rooms filled with rain and giant waves broke through first-floor lobbies.

Even after workers pumped water out of the lower floors of the Hotel El Presidente, reservations manager Fidel Herrera returned to his office to find two inches of standing water.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," Herrera said, surveying the damage. "It's going to be like this for weeks."

In the commercial district, widespread looting was reported even as Mexican soldiers guarded department stores.

Tourists and residents picked through the remains of a 24-hour pharmacy, taking sodas, water and salted snacks. One person handed out plastic store bags so looters could carry their goods.

Police told people they could help themselves to food and water at Chedraui supermarket, but to leave the liquor alone. An ATM machine adjacent to a bank was removed and abandoned after looters apparently could not open it.

The chaos overwhelmed Cancun's small police force, prompting Mexico's secretary for public security to send in 250 officers from Mexico's Federal Preventive Police.

Four police officers have been wounded in clashes with looters and more than 100 people have been arrested on suspicion of looting.

Mexico's secretary for the environment and natural resources said construction of new hotels on Cancun's sand dunes in recent decades had weakened the city's natural storm barriers and might have contributed to the serious flooding.

About 20,000 tourists, mostly Americans, were vacationing in Cancun before Wilma arrived. About half left before the storm made landfall.

The rest were trapped in the seaside resort Sunday, many spending another night sleeping in schools, shelters and damaged hotels, said Lisa Vickers, the U.S. consul in Merida, Mexico.

They would probably be unable to leave until later this week when the Cancun international airport reopens, she said.

"What's been difficult for people is that hurricanes don't usually last this long," she said. "People have been in shelters for three days, and a lot of them are in stress."

But Martin Noll, a visitor from London, took it all in stride. After spending 15 months in Baghdad working for a security firm, he came to Cancun for 10 days on the beach.

"Friday night was pretty scary," he said. "It was dark. But this is scary for 48 hours. In Baghdad, the threat is constant."

Noll said he hitched a ride to the hotel zone Sunday to see about getting a room.

"I still have a week of holiday left," he said.

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