Hour after hour, Hurricane Wilma batters Cancun

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The Independent US

Hurricane Wilma pounded the beach resorts and fishing villages of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula yesterday, whipping up 120mph winds and creating a 10ft storm surge that sent sea water racing through the lower floors of some of Cancun's most luxurious beachfront hotels.

The storm, which pummelled the island resort of Cozumel on Friday, was moving more slowly than initially forecast, and is not now expected to move across the Gulf of Mexico towards Florida until tomorrow at the earliest.

While that offered a reprieve to residents and officials in western Cuba and the United States, it meant hour upon hour of sustained punishment for a part of Mexico that has developed at breakneck pace over the past decade from a quiet Caribbean backwater to a metropolitan mecca for international tourists.

Cancun's beachfront hotel district, constructed on a narrow peninsula, was completely evacuated yesterday. But in the city itself, only a small number of residents and tourists - 50,000 or so out of a local population of 700,000 - left on buses before the storm arrived. The others, including an estimated 30,000 foreign visitors, huddled in shelters and downtown hotels, where food and drink was due to run out yesterday.

With electricity cut off in advance as a safety precaution, the shelters - mostly in schools, hotels and gymnasiums - were hot, sweaty and crowded. Scott Stout, an American spending part of his honeymoon on an indoor basketball court in Cancun beneath a leaky roof, told the Associated Press: "After one more day of this, I believe people will start getting cranky."

Weather experts in Mexico and the US said that Wilma's unexpectedly long sojourn over the Yucatan meant that in effect local people were undergoing several hurricanes, one after another.

Usually, a city will endure no more than two or three hours of punishment from the wind and rain. Cancun was yesterday in for more than 12 hours of punishing wind and rain.

"It's going to be a long couple of days here for the Yucatan Peninsula," said Max Mayfield of the US National Hurricane Center in Miami.

The governor of Quintana Roo province, Felix Gonzalez Cantu, said: "This is the equivalent of having four or five hurricanes of this size pass over, one after the other. Never in the history of Quintana Roo have we had a storm like this."

At Cancun's downtown hotels, tourists and residents huddled together as windows smashed and their buildings shook under pressure from the howling winds. Hotel guests had been advised to push furniture against the windows, but Wilma was strong enough to break through many of the makeshift barriers anyway.

Reporters who ventured outside their shelters saw scenes of chaos in the streets - trees and electricity lines down, cars smashed, phone boxes uprooted and submerged, and large chunks of building debris flying in all directions.

The authorities in the Mexican provinces of Yucatan and Quintana Roo could take solace in two tentative pieces of good news. First, Wilma weakened between Friday and yesterday from a category 5 storm, with winds of more than 140mph, to a category 3. That was scant consolation for Cuba and Florida, however: the storm could easily pick up speed again as it goes back out to sea.

Secondly, there were no immediate reports of storm-related deaths.

According to the Cancun Red Cross, the biggest problems in the first few hours of the hurricane were panic attacks. Red Cross director Ricardo Portugal also said his teams had had to tend to 11 pregnant women who had gone into labour early and needed to get to hospital to give birth.

Wind damage was particularly severe in Playa del Carmen, 30 miles to the south of Cancun, where the hurricane landed on Friday night and flattened dozens of wood and tar-paper houses. Rooftop water tanks and and wooden window shutters flew through the air.

The town was still playing host to a large number of organisers and participants in the MTV Latin America Music Video Awards, which had been scheduled to take place last week but were postponed as Wilma raced in from Jamaica and Haiti.

This was the first time the Cancun area had been hit by a hurricane since Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Wilma is the 12th hurricane-force storm of the season, and the third, after Katrina and Rita, to reach category 5 intensity - all reasons why 2005 will go down as perhaps the most devastating hurricane year since records began.

Forecasters suggested that Wilma would start to move out over the Gulf of Mexico sometime today and hit Florida, more than 400 miles to the north-east, tomorrow.

Wilma's impact was already being felt yesterday on the western tip of Cuba, where the government has evacuated half a million people. Officials there reported waves as high as 21ft crashing on to the coast, cutting off several small fishing villages and inland communities.

In Florida, Governor Jeb Bush has already declared a state of emergency.

The Keys, on the southern tip of the state, are now largely empty, and hundreds of thousands more people up the Gulf coast have either evacuated or are making hasty preparations to do so before the weekend is out.