Hurricane Wilma weakened slightly as it roared toward Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and southern Florida today, leaving at least 12 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 yesterday and authorities were poised to move out thousands of others today from low-lying areas in a 600-mile swathe covering Cuba, Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Jamaica, Haiti and the Cayman Islands.
“People should take this hurricane very seriously,” said Scott McClellan, spokesman for US president George Bush.
“The potential for large loss of life is with us,” Max Mayfield, the director of the US National Hurricane Centre in Miami, referring to Wilma’s possible landfall in Florida on Saturday.
Some of the estimated 70,000 tourists still in Cancun and surrounding areas were taking the warnings more seriously than others. The Senor 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 4am Irish time, Wilma’s sustained winds fell slightly to 155mph, down from a peak of 175mph earlier in the day, but forecasters said it could strengthen again.
Wilma was centred 235 miles south east of Mexico’s Cozumel Island and was moving west-north west at 8mph.
Countries across the region prepared for the worst. Much of Central America was still recovering from Hurricane Stan, which left more than 1,500 people dead or missing. Americans were still mourning 1,200 Gulf Coast victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The storm was on a curving course that would carry it through the narrow channel between Cuba and Mexico tomorrow, possibly within a few miles 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 also 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 to close today and tomorrow and many will be used as storm shelters.
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 2004.
The state has seen seven hurricanes hit or pass close by since August 2004, causing more than €16.2bn in estimated damage and killing nearly 150 people.
“This is one of those cases where we have a tremendous amount of uncertainty,” said 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.
Heavy rain, high winds and rough seas pounded coastal areas of Honduras yesterday, 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.
The head of Haiti’s civil protection agency, Maria Alta Jean-Baptiste, said that at least 12 people had died in rain and landslides there since Monday. At least 2,000 Haitian families had been forced from flooded homes.
In the Cayman Islands, schools and most businesses were closed as heavy rains fell intermittently.
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 therecord-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 would be named with letters from the Greek alphabet, starting with Alpha.