Punishing winds and rain pummelled the Mexican island of Cozumel early today and Cancun braced for the brunt of Wilma’s wrath as the massive hurricane inched toward Mexico’s resort-studded coastline, where thousands of stranded tourists took refuge in shelters and hotel ballrooms.
Cuba evacuated more than 200,000 people in the face of the Wilma, which has already killed at least 13 people in Haiti and Jamaica. The hurricane is expected to hit Mexico and sideswipe Cuba's tip – 130 miles east of Cancun - then swing east and head toward hurricane-weary Florida.
The Category 4 hurricane – one of the most intense on record in the Americas - was already hitting Cozumel, a popular stop for divers and cruise ship passengers and where hundreds of residents and 970 tourists were riding out the hurricane.
“The most important thing now … is to protect lives, protect the lives of our children, of our grandparents,” President Vicente Fox said in a broadcast address to the nation. “Possessions can be replaced.”
Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Centre in Miami said that “as it hits the Yucatan peninsula, it has the potential to do catastrophic damage”.
With winds of 150mph, Wilma is more powerful than Hurricane Katrina at the time it ploughed into the US Gulf Coast on August 29, killing more than 1,200 people.
The National Hurricane Centre in Miami, said that by this morning, the storm’s slow-moving, wobbly centre was roughly 55 miles south-east of Cozumel. The storm was moving toward the north-west at 6mph.
Forecasters said the storm could strengthen to a Category 5 hurricane before hitting land. Its slow progress delayed its expected arrival in Florida until Monday, but fuelled fears that it would have more time to dump rain and pummel the low-lying Mayan Riviera, possibly causing major damage.
The hurricane’s eye is so large it might take hours to pass over land, leading to fears that confused residents might leave shelters in the calm of the middle of the storm.
The slow-moving hurricane was expected to churn over land for almost a full day.
At the beachside Playa Azul hotel on Cozumel’s north end, manager Martha Nieto said “the waves are getting very high. We wish it was over. The waiting drives you to desperation".
After airports closed last night, desperate tourists who had lined up for hours in a failed bid to get on the last planes out were instead shuttled from luxury hotels to sweaty emergency shelters, or crowded into hotel ballrooms used as storm shelters.
About 20,000 tourists remained at shelters and hotels on the mainland south of Cancun, and an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 in the city itself.
Some, like 30-year-old Carlos Porta of Barcelona, Spain, were handed plastic bags with a pillow and blanket.
“From a luxury hotel to a shelter. It makes you angry. But what can you do?” he said. “It’s just bad luck.”
In Cancun, high winds bent palm trees and waves gobbled the city’s white-sand beaches. By yesterday afternoon, 47 hotels were evacuated and the normally busy tourist zone was deserted.
On Wednesday, Wilma became the most intense hurricane recorded in the Atlantic. The storm’s 882 millibars of pressure broke the record low of 888 set by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Lower pressure brings faster winds.
With Florida the following target, Gov Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, and officials cleared tourists out of the exposed Florida Keys.
Across Florida’s south-west coast, people put up shutters, bought canned goods and bottled water and waited in ever-growing lines at gas stations.
In Belize, a nation south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, officials cancelled cruise ship visits and tourists were evacuated from islands offshore.