Hurricane Wilma blows into Mexico

Hurricane Wilma battered deserted resorts along Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula with howling winds and torrential rain on Friday, toppling trees and power lines.

The heart of the fearsome hurricane moved slowly on to the Mexican coast, and authorities have warned it could be one of the most dangerous storms in decades.

The United States National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said Wilma was a category-four storm on the five-level Saffir-Simpson intensity scale. Earlier this week, it was the most powerful storm recorded in the Atlantic to date.

Wilma has weakened slightly, but winds of almost 230kph were still being recorded.

Trees and power lines were toppled on the island of Cozumel and at Playa de Carmen, a resort south of Cancun.

Tens of thousands of tourists have been evacuated from beach hotels along the coast, and police toured the streets of Cancun to enforce an order banning the public from leaving their homes.

Wilma was only moving very slowly—less than 9kph—out of the Caribbean, and Quintana Roo state Governor Felix Gonzalez stressed that this made the hurricane especially dangerous.

“The eye is enormous, which means that there will be a six- or seven-hour calm; people will think that the storm has passed, but that will not be the case,” he said.

The NHC has warned the Yucatan peninsula could get storm surge flooding of 2m to 3,4m above normal tide levels, “along with large and dangerous battering waves”.

Thousands evacuated

Packed buses and airplanes raced tens of thousands of tourists away from Mexican Caribbean resorts on Thursday amid frenzied last-minute efforts to escape Hurricane Wilma.

Most of Cancun’s 33 000 visitors have either left Yucatan or travelled inland to ride out the storm, officials said. About 8 000 tourists remained in shelters, 2 500 of them inside a sports stadium.

“We only brought the mattresses.
The hotel sent over its staff to tend to the guests and provide them with free food and drinks,” Victor Garcia, the local official in charge of the makeshift shelter, said.

About 30 000 tourists at other Yucatan resorts were also housed in shelters, a municipal official said.

A usually crowded nightclub, Mr Froggs, was draped in a banner reading “Wilma, you are not invited to our party”.

At the airport, emergency messages blared out in English, Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese and the local indigenous Maya language before authorities shut down in the afternoon. The airport was closed on Friday.

The storm has already claimed at least one life: a 33-year-old Mexican woman was electrocuted and killed in Cancun as she readied for the arrival of the storm, authorities said.

Flooding in Jamaica, Haiti

The hurricane sparked widespread flooding and landslides in Jamaica.

Eleven people have been killed in flooding and landslides in Haiti in the past two weeks.

Forecasters expect Wilma to make a sharp turn to the north towards Florida, though it would not reach there until Monday at the earliest.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, but authorities in the Florida Keys island chain postponed mandatory evacuations by a day after the storm’s potential arrival was pushed back to next week.

East of Yucatan in Cuba, authorities said they evacuated 300 000 people from the western part of the island.

“It is a very dangerous hurricane ... We can’t run any risks,” said civil defence official Luis Angel Macareno.

Wilma is the 12th full-blown hurricane of the Atlantic season, and a series of storms have left thousands dead in Central America and along the US Gulf Coast.

Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1 200 people on the US Gulf Coast after it struck on August 29, and Hurricane Stan left more than 2 000 dead or missing in Guatemala earlier this month, with dozens more killed in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Mexico.—AFP

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