Mexico, US brace for lashing from Hurricane Wilma

Mexico braced on Thursday for a major hit from a monstrous Hurricane Wilma as the powerful storm threatened to grow even stronger before making landfall in this touristic coastline.

The storm forced thousands of European and American tourists to flee Cancun resort hotels, while tens of thousands of people were evacuated in Cuba. Florida authorities were also keeping a close eye on the storm, which is expected to eventually hit the southern US state.

Wilma’s eye will be “very near” the Yucatan Peninsula coast by midday on Friday, but the area will be lashed by hurricane conditions before the storm’s centre makes landfall, according to the US National Hurricane Centre (NHC).

Wilma on Wednesday became the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic before weakening from Category Five to Category Four in the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale. But it could regain maximum strength as it approaches Yucatan late Thursday, the Miami-based center warned.

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, a municipal spokesperson said.
About 8 000 tourists remained in shelters.

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 operations in the afternoon. The airport will remain closed Friday, an airport spokesperson said.

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.

At 0001 GMT, the centre of the gigantic storm was about 195km southeast of Cozumel, Mexico, the NHC said.

The storm is moving northwest at nearly eight kilometres per hour packing top sustained winds near 240kph, with higher gusts.

The NHC has warned the Yucatan peninsula to expect storm surge flooding of two to three meters (seven to 10 feet) above normal tide levels “along with large and dangerous battering waves.”

Forecasters expect Wilma to make a sharp turn to the east towards Florida, though its arrival date was uncertain.

“All interests in the Florida Keys and the Florida peninsula should closely monitor the progress of extremely dangerous Hurricane Wilma,” the NHC said.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency as Wilma appears to threaten his state, 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.

As much as one metre of rain could drench mountainous areas of Cuba, US forecasters said.

The hurricane already sparked widespread flooding and landslides in Jamaica.

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. Dozens more were killed by the storm in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Mexico. - AFP

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