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Sunday, October 23, 2005

Coast of Mexico Takes Thrashing as Storm Stalls - New York Times

Coast of Mexico Takes Thrashing as Storm Stalls - New York TimesOctober 23, 2005
Coast of Mexico Takes Thrashing as Storm Stalls

Hurricane Wilma stalled over the Yucatán Peninsula yesterday, pounding the Mexican beach cities of Cancún and Playa del Carmen and stranding tens of thousands of tourists in hot, leaky shelters while a maelstrom of howling winds, uprooted trees and hurtling debris raged on all sides.

Forecasters said the slow-moving tempest would probably hit Florida early tomorrow, perhaps with diminished force. But with haunting images of Hurricane Katrina still lurking, thousands of Floridians and state officials were taking no chances.

Gov. Jeb Bush and local officials ordered mandatory evacuations, starting with 80,000 residents of the vulnerable Florida Keys, linked to the mainland by a single road, and of Naples and Marco Island on the southwest coast. The streets of Key West were nearly deserted by midday. Residents of Florida's west coast, meantime, got out, or - playing a dangerous waiting game - gathered supplies and boarded up. Traffic jams backed up on highways, and scattered gasoline shortages were reported. [Page 28.]

In the Yucatán, at least four deaths were reported, two in a gas tank explosion in Playa del Carmen and those of a woman electrocuted in Cancún and a 69-year-old man killed by falling branches in a neighboring state. The number of injuries in Mexico was unknown, as was the extent of property damage, but it was widespread and expected to run into many millions.

Five homes were destroyed and 1,000 others were damaged in Playa del Carmen. In Cancún, 50 hotels and hundreds of homes were damaged, public buildings were crumbling, windows were shattered and a coast known as a tourists' playground overlooking a turquoise sea was transformed into a vast region of danger and destruction.

The storm also washed out roads in mudslides and devastated countless shacks and jungle cabins that are home to the Yucatán's impoverished people, tens of thousands whose lives are largely hidden from the tourists behind the facades of the high-rise hotels and the postcard-perfect, white-sand beaches. The numbers in these backcountry slums have been swollen by the migration of poor Mexicans seeking work in the booming tourist industry, centered on the Mayan ruins and the pristine beach resorts.

Five hundred miles across, packing winds of 140 miles an hour, the hurricane slammed into the Mexican mainland late Friday as a Category 4 storm about seven hours after its eye rumbled over the island of Cozumel, a cruise-ship port 11 miles offshore.

While the storm lost power slightly, becoming a Category 3 storm by midmorning and a Category 2 storm by afternoon, with sustained winds down to 110 m.p.h., its power remained awesome as it came to a standstill over the Yucatán, where it was expected to remain for two days.

That prolonged the misery of hundreds of thousands of residents of the Yucatán and 30,000 tourists riding out the storm in shelters with little food and water. But it gave a reprieve to southern Florida, where the hurricane was expected to hit next. Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for the Florida Keys and Collier County in southwest Florida yesterday, although thousands had already left.

By dawn yesterday, huge waves were crashing over the narrow strip of beachfront at Cancún. At the Xbalamqué Hotel, one of a number of resorts that had been turned into shelters, terrified tourists and local residents huddled as windows were blown in and the building shook.

"I never in my life wanted to live through something like this," Guadalupe Santiago, 27, a cook, told The Associated Press. "There are no words to describe it."

Outside, cars were crushed under fallen trees, the air was filled with a debris of broken furniture, metal sheets of roofing and pieces of buildings that were coming apart. Pay phones jutted up from waist-deep floodwaters and beachside tiki huts had been washed away.

In some sections of Cancún's beachfront hotel district, which lies between the ocean and a lagoon, the floodwaters were more than six feet deep. One shelter in downtown Cancún had to evacuate 1,000 people overnight because its ceiling appeared ready to collapse. Five prisoners were reported to have escaped from a jail when a fence blew down. Isolated looting and a dozen arrests of suspected looters were reported in Cancún, a metropolitan area of 700,000 people.

Relief was on the way, officials said. Two Mexican Air Force planes brought in the first emergency supplies, but were forced to land in the state capital, Chetumal, 200 miles south of Cancún. It was unclear how long it would take to move the supplies to the stricken areas along roads disrupted by mudslides.

Offshore, on the tourist haven of Isla Mujeres, more than five feet of rain was reported to have fallen in 24 hours.

Moisés Ramirez, the civil defense coordinator of Playa del Carmen, a resort popular with European and American tourists, said his community had been devastated. "Playa is destroyed," he told Agence France-Presse.

The Mexican government, whose resources had already been stretched thin by the heavy damage of Hurricane Stan in the neighboring state of Chiapas earlier in the month, said the navy was sending six helicopters and four amphibious vehicles, along with 600 troops, a dozen mobile drinking water plants and 50 emergency power generators.

At 2 p.m. yesterday, the hurricane's eye was inland over northeastern Yucatán about 10 miles southwest of Cancún and about 400 miles southeast of Key West, Fla.

Some residents ventured out briefly to survey a flooded landscape littered with floating office furniture, broken boards, painted signs, roofing shingles and other debris sloshing around fallen tree trunks, downed power lines, drowned cars and shattered storefronts. Others waded through the foul-smelling water in search of relatives or shelter.

Raúl Rivera Placios, director of emergency administration for Mexico's interior ministry, said that more than 72,000 people had been evacuated from Quintana Roo and Yucatán States before the hurricane hit Mexico. But tens of thousands of tourists and residents found themselves sleeping on the floors of hotel ballrooms, schools and gymnasiums, reeking of sweat because there was no power for air-conditioning. Power was cut off to most of the region as a precaution against fire. Telephone service was also cut off.

Hotels being used as shelters pushed furniture up against windows, but shrieking winds blasted through the barriers and water poured in through broken windows.

Cancún's Red Cross director, Ricardo Portugal, said 11 pregnant women had gone into early labor and had to be ferried to hospitals.

The hurricane, which had killed 13 people in Haiti and Jamaica, was expected to drift northeastward over the weekend, sideswiping Cuba before bearing down on Florida. Cuba braced for coastal storm surges and flooding and evacuated more than 550,000 people, including 425,000 from the island's western side.

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Alpha formed yesterday in the Caribbean Sea, The Associated Press reported, setting the record for the most number of storms in an Atlantic hurricane season.

Alpha is the season's 22nd tropical storm and marks the first time a letter from the Greek alphabet has been used because the list of storm names is used up. The previous record of 21 storms was set in 1933.

At 8 p.m. yesterday, Alpha had sustained winds of about 40 mph. It was centered about 70 miles south of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, and moving northwest at about 15 m.p.h., forecasters said.

James C. McKinley Jr. contributed reporting from Cancún, Mexico, for this article, and Elisabeth Malkin from Mexico City.

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