Wilma ends party for thousands in Cancun
CANCUN, Mexico – Employees boarded up windows at a trendy bar and restaurant. Discos removed towering neon signs that normally light up the night. And hotels lining Cancun’s famous white-sand beaches were empty, their guests evacuated.Mexico’s most-famous resort was deserted Thursday, a somber reflection of how this normally bustling beach resort retreated to higher ground as Hurricane Wilma prepared to roar ashore.Officials even banned the sale of alcohol in the city of 500,000 people known for its year-round parties.Those who couldn’t escape on the last flights out sought refuge in schools, cultural centers and other makeshift shelters.For many, it wasn’t the vacation they had planned.Jeff and Robyn Bakken, of Lake Geneva, Wis., celebrated their 15th anniversary in a sweltering gymnasium with more than 1,500 other people.”We came here to have nothing to do, to get away from everything,” Jeff Bakken said. “And now I’m here with all these people on a floor.”Outside, an impromptu soccer game pitted tourists against locals until rain drove the players inside. At a picnic table in the shelter, two enterprising Cancun residents sold “I survived Hurricane Wilma” T-shirts for $10.”This will be a great story when we tell the kids,” Robyn Bakken said.Wilma, a Category 4 storm with winds of 150 mph, churned toward the Yucatan peninsula and south Florida after its outer bands hit Haiti and Jamaica, where it killed at least 13 people. The storm was expected to strike Cancun and its surrounding resorts and sideswipe Cuba early Friday. Cuba evacuated more than 200,000 people.Forecasters said Wilma likely would make a sharp right turn toward Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, after getting caught in the westerlies, the strong wind current that generally blows toward the east. It is expected to make landfall in Florida on Sunday.”At least for the next couple of days here, we think we’re going to have a very powerful hurricane here in the Caribbean,” said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.Briefly the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record, Wilma was a potentially catastrophic Category 5 storm before weakening. Its 150 mph winds made it more powerful than Hurricane Katrina when it plowed into the Gulf coast of the United States on Aug. 29, killing more than 1,200 people.At 5 p.m. EDT, the storm’s wobbly center was roughly 135 miles southeast of Cozumel, a popular vacation island, the hurricane center said. Its forecast track would carry it directly to Cancun by early Friday.The storm had strengthened slightly, and forecasters said it could regain Category 5 strength winds of 156 mph or more.”This is getting very powerful, very threatening,” Mexican President Vicente Fox said earlier.Cancun’s airport was packed. Lines of hundreds waiting for flights wound past queues of dozens seeking rental cars, taxis or automatic teller machines.Hundreds of schools in the Yucatan peninsula were ordered closed Thursday and Friday, and many were turned into shelters. Airlines started canceling flights.Increasingly high winds bent palm trees and strong waves pounded Cancun’s beaches. Officials loaded tourists onto buses after rousting them from luxury hotels lining the strip between the Caribbean Sea and the Nichupte Lagoon.Mayor Francisco Antonio Alor said 20,000 tourists remained in the city Thursday, down from 35,000 the day before. He said he hoped most would be able to fly out on charters, but about 270 shelters were being prepared for those who had to stay.”It’s important that the people understand they should leave for their own security,” he said. “It is important that they understand the situation is very dangerous.”Early 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.Quintana Roo state officials urged the evacuation of nearby islands, and ferries carried throngs to the mainland, but not all agreed to flee.Asked by telephone if she was leaving Cozumel’s Hotel Aguilar where she works, Maite Soberanis replied: “Not for anything. We’re in the center of the island. We’re protected. We are very secure. We’ve lived through Gilbert here. We know what to do.”In Cuba, whose tip is 130 miles east of Cancun, civil defense officials said 220,000 people were evacuated by midday, most from low-lying areas in the island’s west.An additional 14,500 students at boarding schools outside Havana were sent home until after the storm.”We do what is necessary to prevent any problems,” said Yahany Canoua, who is six months pregnant and waited for a bus as part of a mandatory evacuation of La Coloma, a fishing village on the southwestern coast of Cuba.Evacuees crowded the buses with children, dogs and bags of food. Some people moved televisions and refrigerators to safer ground.In Florida, officials began clearing tourists out of the Keys but postponed the evacuation of residents. Across the state’s southwest coast, people hammered in window shutters, bought canned goods and bottled water and waited in lines for gas.Mayfield said Wilma’s slowing pace could push the storm back to a Category 3 or less before hitting Florida on Sunday.He said the storm also was expanding in size, with tropical storm-force winds extending 260 miles. “This has become a larger hurricane,” he said.Honduras, raked by the storm’s outer bands Wednesday, escaped with no reports of significant damage, said national emergency committee spokesman Juan Jose Reyes.