Mexico takes a battering from Hurricane Wilma

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The Independent US

Looters prowled the streets of Mexico's resort-studded Yucatan peninsula, as raging winds, tidal surges and driving rain from Hurricane Wilma left isolated towns and cities knee-deep in water and strewn with debris.

Tourists re-emerged on to the streets of Cancun early yesterday, after three nights trapped in dark, airless storm shelters, to find a devastated cityscape of bowled-over telephone kiosks, ripped-up bus shelters and flooded hotel lobbies.

"It looks like a war zone out there," a British tourist, Thomas Hall, said as he queued with many other holidaymakers to telephone his family back home, after spending the weekend at a makeshift refuge in a local theatre.

Luxury hotels in Cancun's Riviera Maya strip have been cut off since Friday. Huge seas surged inland, bowling over palm trees and power lines, and knocking down buildings in the popular coastal strip that draws in millions of tourists each year.

Four people died in nearby Cozumel, a resort island popular with scuba divers that bore the brunt of the storm, and the community remained cut off yesterday. In nearby Playa del Carmen, on the mainland, looting broke out, as residents sacked storm-battered stores, staggering off with refrigerators, bicycles and television sets.

Mexico's President, Vicente Fox, headed to the devastated region yesterday, as the Mexican army prepared to carry out relief operations and restore order in communities devastated by the storm, the latest killer in a record hurricane season that runs through to the end of next month.

As Mexico faced a clear-up operation that could cost billions of dollars, Wilma roared north, gathering speed as it headed for the Florida coast. The US Hurricane Centre director, Max Mayfield, predicted the storm would " take off like a rocket" over the open water, closing at 20 mph to make landfall in Florida early today.

The category 2 hurricane was joined in the region by tropical storm Alpha, which formed off the Dominican Republic at the weekend. The new storm is the 22nd of this record-breaking hurricane season (the worst on record until now was in 1933). It is named after the first letter in the Greek alphabet because all the hurricane names for the current season have been used.

Authorities ordered the evacuation of about 160,000 people along the Florida coast. Among them were the entire population of the low-lying Florida Keys , which are particularly vulnerable to expected tidal surges of up to 13 feet.

Wilma's outer rain bands dumped some 5ins of rain on the Fort Lauderdale area over the weekend, causing hip-deep flooding in some neighbourhoods and forcing scores of residents to evacuate homes in the area.

Towns and cities on the coast, some of which had served as a refuge for victims from Hurricane Katrina last month, braced for up to one foot of rain.

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is still smarting from criticism after failing to evacuate New Orleans and the Gulf Coast ahead of Hurricane Katrina, put more than 13 million emergency meals on standby, together with dozens of military helicopters that could evacuate residents.