Cancun, Cuba evacuate Ahead of Hurricane Wilma

10-20-05 - Tourists packed Cancun's airport desperately seeking flights out and guests at luxury hotels shuttled to emergency shelters, trying to escape Hurricane Wilma as its outer bands battered the resort's white-sand beaches. Cuba evacuated more than 200,000 people ahead of the Category 4 storm.

Wilma, with maximum sustained winds of 145 mph, churned toward the Yucatan peninsula and south Florida after hitting Haiti and Jamaica, where it killed at least 13 people. The storm was expected to strike Cancun and its surrounding resorts and sideswipe Cuba early Friday.

Forecasters said Wilma then would make a beeline for Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, and make landfall Sunday.

"At least for the next couple of days here, we think we're going to have a very powerful hurricane here in the Caribbean," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Briefly the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record, Wilma was a potentially catastrophic Category 5 storm before weakening. Its 145 mph winds made it roughly as powerful as Hurricane Katrina when it plowed into the Gulf coast of the United States on Aug. 29, killing more than 1,200 people.

The hurricane center said the storm's wobbly center was roughly 190 miles southeast of Cancun, Mexico's top tourist attraction. At 2 p.m. EDT, Wilma was centered 160 miles southeast of Mexico's Cozumel Island, and moving northwest at near 5 mph. The forecast track would carry it directly to the city of some 500,000 people by late Friday.

"This is getting very powerful, very threatening," Mexican President Vicente Fox said.

Hundreds of schools in the Yucatan peninsula were ordered closed Thursday and Friday, and many were turned into shelters. Airlines started canceling flights.

At the Cancun airport, hundreds of tourists waited for flights or sought rental cars, taxis or ATMs.

Matt Williams and Jeff Davidson of Westfield, N.J., were going back to their hotel in Playa del Carmen south of Cancun after their flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. was canceled. At the hotel, they faced a night in a ballroom-turned-emergency shelter.

"You see the lines. I don't want to stand there for two hours and then decide what to do," said Williams, 26.

Asked if Katrina was on his mind, he said: "You see that on TV, all that destruction. All you can do is hope that it doesn't happen here."

Increasingly high winds bent palm trees and strong waves pounded Cancun's beaches. Officials loaded tourists onto buses after rousting them from luxury hotels lining the strip between the Caribbean Sea and the Nichupte Lagoon.

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."

Mayor Francisco Antonio Alor said 20,000 tourists remained in the city Thursday, down from 35,000 the day before. He said he hoped most would be able to fly out on charters, but about 270 shelters were being prepared for those who had to stay.

"It's important that the people understand they should leave for their own security," he said. "It is important that they understand the situation is very dangerous."

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.

Quintana Roo state officials urged the evacuation of nearby islands, and ferries carried throngs to the mainland, but not all agreed to flee.

Asked by telephone if she was leaving Cozumel's Hotel Aguilar where she works, Maite Soberanis replied: "Not for anything. We're in the center of the island. We're protected. We are very secure. We've lived through Gilbert here. We know what to do."

In Cuba, whose tip is 130 miles east of Cancun, civil defense officials said 220,000 people were evacuated by midday, most from low-lying areas in the island's west.

An additional 14,500 students at boarding schools outside Havana were sent home until after the storm.

"We do what is necessary to prevent any problems," said Yahany Canoua, who is six months pregnant and waited for a bus as part of a mandatory evacuation of La Coloma, a fishing village on the southwestern coast of Cuba.

Evacuees crowded the buses with children, dogs and bags of food. Some people moved televisions and refrigerators to safer ground.

In Florida, officials began clearing tourists out of the Keys but postponed the evacuation of residents. Across the state's southwest coast, people hammered in window shutters, bought canned goods and bottled water and waited in lines for gas.

Mayfield said Wilma's slowing pace could push the storm back to a Category 3 or less before hitting Florida on Sunday.

He said the storm also was expanding in size, with tropical storm-force winds extending 260 miles. "This has become a larger hurricane," he said.

Starting as a tropical depression over the weekend, Wilma has triggered floods and landslides that killed at least 12 people in Haiti and one in Jamaica.

Honduras, raked by the storm's outer bands Wednesday, escaped with no reports of significant damage, said national emergency committee spokesman Juan Jose Reyes.

A few miles south of Cancun in Playa del Carmen, executives at the Occidental Grand Flamenco Xcaret warned customers they might have to move to a shelter in the hotel.

The tourists, many clutching drinks and still wearing bathing suits, let out a collective groan when told that bars would be closed and smoking banned in the shelters.