Hurricane Wilma hits Mexico

Sea water rushed into the Mexican resort city of Cancun early on Saturday as Hurricane Wilma whipped up a massive storm surge and unleashed heavy rain and driving winds over a resort area known for its picturesque beaches.

The Category Four storm hit the Yucatan peninsula packing sustained winds of 215km an hour, felling trees and tearing roofs off buildings, as tens of thousands of tourists and residents cowered in emergency shelters.

“The water is already reaching the third floor of some hotels,” said Humberto Hernandez Uzon, a spokesperson for the national weather service. “And the bad weather will continue for another 12 hours.”

Quintana Roo state governor Felix Gonzalez Canto said the storm had affected the whole infrastructure of the region.

The eye of the 12th hurricane of the Atlantic season was expected to remain over the peninsula on Saturday before heading slowly toward the Florida coast in the southeastern United States.

At 6am GMT, the US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said the eye of the storm was 45km southwest of Cancun, right over Playa del Carmen, a resort south of Cancun.

“It’s going to be over the Yucatan over a long period,” said Max Mayfield, director of the NHC in Miami.

The NHC said the storm could weaken as it moved inland.

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.

Six people were injured in a fire in Playa del Carmen on Friday, when strong winds caused a gas tank to fall and ignite, authorities said.

A state of emergency was declared in 55 districts of Yucatan.
To the east, a hurricane watch was in effect in the western provinces of Cuba, prompting the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people.

The NHC said the storm was expected to dump 25 to 50cm of rain on western Cuba and Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula until Sunday. In some isolated cases, up to one meter could fall.

In Cuba’s western province of Pinar del Rio, authorities said 195 600 had been evacuated as weather experts struggled to anticipate when and where the erratic, lumbering Wilma would strike next.

“It’s a system that moves very slowly, and will create tension for us for many days. It will be a long battle,” said Jose Rubiera at the Meteorological Institute of Cuba.

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

More than 50 000 people have been evacuated from the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan, said federal civil defense official Carmen Segura. Thousands more were taking shelter in schools and gymnasiums to ride out the storm.

“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 a makeshift shelter, told Agence France Presse.

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

The international airport suspended operations on Thursday and remained closed on Saturday.

Forecasts warned the storm could head north and bear east towards the US state of Florida.

Evacuations of residents from the Florida Keys, the state’s southernmost island chain, were postponed as it remained unclear when Wilma would arrive and at what strength.

Earlier predictions had the storm hitting Florida on Friday or Saturday but a revised forecast said it could strike on Monday.

The state’s governor, Jeb Bush, a brother of US President George Bush, had activated the National Guard while the US Coast Guard flew along the coast looking for mariners in potential danger.

Wilma is the 12th hurricane of the Atlantic season, the largest number of hurricanes recorded since 1969. - AFP

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