Hurricane Wilma lashes Cozumel, Cancun

10-21-05 - The fearsome core of Hurricane Wilma slammed into the island of Cozumel on Friday, starting a long, grinding march across Mexico's resort-studded coastline, where thousands of stranded tourists hunkered down in shelters and hotel ballrooms.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami said the hurricane's eyewall _ the fastest-moving section surrounding the eye _ had hit Cozumel, a popular stop for divers and cruise ships, at about 8:15 a.m. EDT. Hundreds of residents and nearly 1,000 tourists were riding out the hurricane in the resort.

The storm was expected to make an agonizingly slow journey to the tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and sideswipe Cuba _ 130 miles east of Cancun _ then swing east toward hurricane-weary Florida.

Cuba evacuated nearly 370,000 people in the face of the storm, which has already killed at least 13 people in Haiti and Jamaica.

"The most important thing now ... is to protect lives," President Vicente Fox said in a broadcast address to the nation Thursday night.

Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm "has the potential to do catastrophic damage."

At 8 a.m. EDT, the maximum sustained wind diminished to 145 mph from 150 mph, with gusts reaching 184 mph. Wilma's slow-moving, wobbly center was roughly 50 miles southeast of Cozumel. The hurricane was moving toward the northwest at 6 mph, which was expected to bring the eye to shore Friday morning.

Forecasters said the storm could dump as much as 40 inches of rain over isolated, mountainous parts of western Cuba and about half that in some other parts of Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula.

The storm could strengthen to a Category 5 hurricane before hitting land, forecasters said. Its slow progress delayed its expected arrival in Florida until Monday, but fueled fears that it would have more time to dump rain and pummel the low-lying Mayan Riviera, possibly causing major damage. The hurricane was expected to churn over Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula for most of the weekend.

The hurricane's eye was so large it might take hours to pass over land, leading to fears that confused residents might leave shelters in the calm of the middle of the storm.

At the beachside Playa Azul hotel on Cozumel's north end, manager Martha Nieto said "the waves are getting very high."

"We wish it was over. The waiting drives you to desperation," Nieto said by telephone.

After airports closed late Thursday, desperate tourists who had lined up for hours in a failed bid to get on the last planes out were instead shuttled to sweaty emergency shelters.

Devon Anderson, 21, from Sacramento, Calif., was packed into a school with other Americans. He said the army never arrived to board up the windows.

"There's no food, no water," he said. "We've pretty much just been deserted."

About 20,000 tourists remained at shelters and hotels on the mainland south of Cancun, and an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 in the city itself.

Some, like 30-year-old Carlos Porta of Barcelona, Spain, were handed plastic bags with a pillow and blanket.

"From a luxury hotel to a shelter. It makes you angry. But what can you do?" he said. "It's just bad luck."

In Cancun, high winds bent palm trees and waves gobbled the city's white-sand beaches. Nearly 50 hotels were evacuated, leaving the normally busy tourist zone deserted.

Early Wednesday, Wilma became the most intense hurricane recorded in the Atlantic. The storm's 882 millibars of pressure broke the record low of 888 set by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Lower pressure brings faster winds.

The storm should eventually make a sharp right turn toward Florida because it will get caught in the westerlies, the strong wind current that generally blows toward the east, forecasters said.

With Florida the following target, Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, and officials cleared tourists out of the exposed Florida Keys. Across Florida's southwest coast, people put up shutters, bought canned goods and bottled water and waited in ever-growing lines at gas stations.

In Belize, a nation south of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, officials canceled cruise ship visits and tourists were evacuated from islands offshore. But the tiny country weathered the storm with few reports of damage.