Wilma heads for Cuba, Florida

Six people were listed as killed and two as missing early on Sunday after Hurricane Wilma erased beaches and flooded luxury hotels up to the third floor in Mexico’s famous Yucatan resorts.

More than 71 000 people, many of them foreign tourists, remained in emergency refuge centers for a second night as slow-moving, powerful Wilma continued to pummel the region with high winds and rains.

At 6am GMT, the storm was located 85km north of Cancun and drifting north, according to the United States National Hurricane Centre in Miami.

The storm carried sustained winds of up to 160km an hour, and was expected to begin moving more quickly in a northeasterly direction over the next 24 hours.

“Some strengthening is possible today [Sunday],” the centre warned.

In Cuba, where Wilma has already spawned several tornados, the government continued to evacuate more than half a million people from its westernmost provinces.

The storm was expected to brush the island’s northwest coast on Sunday before heading toward Florida.

On Saturday, Florida authorities ordered the mandatory evacuation of 80 000 residents of the Florida Keys in advance of the storm’s arrival.

The famous beach resorts of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula were battered with heavy winds and rains for nearly two days on Friday and Saturday.

The storm wiped out electricity and telephone lines, and destroyed more than 1 000 homes in Playa del Carmen, popular with European and North American tourists, officials said on Saturday.

“Playa is destroyed. We have water everywhere, all of the power lines are down, we are flooded all over,” said Moises Ramirez, the town’s civil defence chief.

In Cancun, which sat under the hurricane’s center for hours on end, floodwaters rose up to eight meters (26 feet), reaching the third story of some hotels.

President Vicente Fox announced he would visit the devastated region on Sunday, as four Wilma-related deaths were reported by Mexican authorities.

Two people died of burns, and five others were injured, after a gas cylinder plunged from a rooftop in Playa del Carmen and exploded during the storm on Friday, according to the Quintana Roo state governor’s office.

A man was killed by a falling tree branch, and earlier a 33-year-old woman was electrocuted and killed in Cancun as she readied for the storm, authorities said.

Two dead bodies were discovered on Cozumel Island.

At least 12 people were arrested after police caught them attempting to loot abandoned shops and other businesses, officials said.

Local people were seen breaking into shops for food and water in Cancun, which most tourists had evacuated earlier in the week.

Cozumel, famous among skin and scuba divers, lay devastated following the storm, with streets under one metre of water, according to the interior ministry.

The Miami centre warned of rainfall accumulations of up to 1,3-metres as Wilma set off on a forecast track northeast through the southern Gulf of Mexico toward Florida.

Wilma remained a level-two storm on the five-level Saffir-Simpson intensity scale early on Monday.

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Alpha bore down on the Dominican Republic, making this year’s Atlantic hurricane season the most active on record. - AFP

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