Hurricane Wilma takes aim at Cancun, Florida

Hurricane Wilma weakened slightly as it roared toward Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and southern Florida on Wednesday, leaving 13 people dead in its wake and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands in coastal areas from Honduras to the Florida Keys.

Tourists were ordered out of the Florida Keys and the island of Isla Mujeres near Cancun, and authorities were poised to move out thousands of others on Thursday from low-lying areas in a 1 000km swathe covering Cuba, Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Jamaica, Haiti and the Cayman Islands.

“People should take this hurricane very seriously,” said Scott McClellan, spokesperson for President George Bush.

“The potential for large loss of life is with us,” Max Mayfield, the director of the United States National Hurricane Centre in Miami, Florida, referring to Wilma’s possible landfall on Saturday in Florida.

Some of the estimated 70 000 tourists still in Cancun and surrounding areas were taking the warnings more seriously than others, as heavy rains began lashing the city. The Señor Frog’s restaurant in Cancun sponsored a “Hurricane Wilma” party, but it was far from full.

Standing knee-deep in the ocean and drinking beer in Playa de Carmen, south of Cancun, Mike Goepfrich, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, said “as long as they give me beer in the shelter, and my kids are safe, we’ll be fine.
We’re going to ride it out here.”

Nearby, fisherman Rolando Ramirez (51) was helping others pull their fishing boats from the water in preparation for Wilma’s passage.

“People here aren’t concerned about anything,” said Ramirez. “They don’t know that when the hurricane comes, this will all be under water.”

At 3am GMT, Wilma’s sustained winds fell slightly to 250kph, down from a peak of 282kph earlier in the day, but forecasters said it could strengthen again.

Wilma was centred 380km south-east of Mexico’s Cozumel Island, and was moving west-northwest at 13kph.

Expecting the worst

Countries across the region prepared for the worst. Much of Central America is still recovering from Hurricane Stan, which left more than 1 500 people dead or missing. Americans are still mourning 1 200 Gulf Coast victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The storm is on a curving course that will carry it through the narrow channel between Cuba and Mexico on Friday, possibly within a few kilometres of Cancun and Cozumel.

In the coastal state of Quintana Roo—which includes Cancun—officials ordered the evacuation of four low-lying islands, including Isla Mujeres, and closed the popular cruise ship port on the island of Cozumel.

“This is getting very powerful, very threatening,” President Vicente Fox said of the hurricane. Hundreds of schools in Quintana Roo were ordered closed on Thursday and Friday, and many will be used as storm shelters.

Predictions differed on where the hurricane would go and how strong it will be when it reaches US shores, where Florida residents began buying water, canned food and other emergency supplies.

Wilma’s track could take it near Punta Gorda on Florida’s south-western Gulf Coast and other areas hit by Hurricane Charley, a category-four storm, in August last year.

The state has seen seven hurricanes hit or pass close by since August last year, causing more than $20-billion in estimated damage and killing nearly 150 people.

“People have learned their lesson and know better how to prepare. We’re not waiting until the last minute any more,” said Andrea Yerger (48), of Port Charlotte, Florida.

“This is one of those cases where we have a tremendous amount of uncertainty,” said the National Hurricane Centre’s Mayfield. Referring to Wilma’s explosive two-day growth from tropical storm to a “potentially catastrophic” category-five hurricane, Mayfield said “this is one of the most perplexing storms we have had to deal with” this year.

Wilma could charge rapidly across southern Florida on Saturday, leading to the cancellation of a football game between Number 6 Miami and Georgia Tech. MTV postponed the Video Music Awards Latin America ceremony that was originally scheduled for Thursday at a seaside park south of Cancun.

Tourists flee

On Wednesday, tourists packed Cancun’s airport even though skies were still partly sunny, looking for flights home or to other resorts.

Mark Carara cut his family’s vacation short by two days, and tried to get on a standby flight home to Colorado Springs.

“You hear it was the biggest storm on record, and yeah, that was the clincher right there,” he said. “It was time for us to go.”

Heavy rain, high winds and rough seas pounded coastal areas of Honduras on Wednesday, knocking out power to about 20 towns, cutting off roads to four others and forcing the evacuation of coastal villages and the closure of two Caribbean ports.

Four fishermen were reported missing at sea and about 500 US and European tourists were moved to safe locations at hotels on Honduras’ Bay Islands.

Deaths in Haiti

The head of Haiti’s civil protection agency, Maria Alta Jean-Baptiste, said at least 12 people have died in rain and landslides there since Monday. At least 2 000 Haitian families have been forced from flooded homes.

Cuban authorities suspended classes in the threatened western province of Pinar del Rio and prepared to evacuate tourists from campgrounds and low-lying areas, according to Granma, the Communist Party daily.

Heavy rains in the island’s eastern province of Granma forced the evacuations of more than 1 000 people.

Jamaica, where heavy rains have fallen since Sunday, closed almost all schools and 350 people were living in shelters. One man died on Sunday in a rain-swollen river.

A military helicopter plucked 19 people from their rooftops on Tuesday in southern St Catherine parish, where some areas were flooded with up to 2m of water, said Barbara Carby, head of Jamaica’s emergency-management office.

Prime Minister PJ Patterson ordered the military to make emergency food shipments to stranded residents.

In the Cayman Islands, schools and most businesses were closed as heavy rains fell intermittently.

The storm is expected to dump up to 63cm of rain in mountainous areas of Cuba until Friday, and up to 38cm in the Caymans and Jamaica until Thursday. Up to 30cm are possible from Honduras to the Yucatan peninsula, the US weather service said.

In Belize, a nation south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, officials cancelled cruise-ship visits and tourists were evacuated from keys offshore.

Strongest on record

Wilma’s confirmed pressure readings early on Wednesday dropped to 882 millibars, the lowest minimum pressure measured to date in a hurricane in the Americas, according to the hurricane centre. Lower pressure translates into higher wind speed.

The strongest Atlantic storm on record, based on pressure readings, had been Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, which registered 888 millibars.

Forecasters said Wilma should avoid the central US Gulf coast devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita earlier this year. Those storms killed more than 1 200 people and caused billions of dollars in damage.

Wilma is the record-tying 12th hurricane of the Atlantic season, the same number reached in 1969. Records have been kept since 1851.

On Monday, Wilma became the Atlantic hurricane season’s 21st named storm, tying the record set in 1933 and exhausting the list of names for this year.

The six-month hurricane season does not end until November 30. Any new storms will be named with letters from the Greek alphabet, starting with Alpha.—Sapa-AP

Associated Press writers Mitch Stacy in Punta Gorda, Florida, Vanessa Arrington in Havana, Cuba, and Jay Ehrhart in George Town, Cayman Islands, contributed to this report

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