Wilma lashes Mexican coast for 2nd day

The hurricane weakens to Category 2 and is moving northward toward Cuba and FL.

wilma mexico 298 (photo credit: )
wilma mexico 298
(photo credit: )
Hurricane Wilma punished Mexico's Caribbean coastline for a second day Saturday, ripping away storefronts, peeling back roofs and forcing tourists and residents trapped in hotels and shelters to scramble to higher floors. At least three people were killed. Waves slammed into seaside pools and sent water surging over the narrow strip of sand housing the city's luxury hotels and raucous bars, joining the sea with the resort's alligator-infested lagoon. Downtown, winds tore banks open to the elements, leaving automatic teller machines rising from knee-deep water. Wilma, which had weakened to a Category 2 and was inching northward, was expected to pick up speed Sunday, sideswiping Cuba before it slams into Florida. As the eye of the storm passed over Cancun on Saturday, the air became calm and eerily electric. Some residents ventured briefly from their hiding spots to survey the flooded, debris-filled streets. Several dozen people looted at least four convenience stores, carrying out bags of canned tuna, pasta and soda, while others dragged tables, chairs and lamps from a destroyed furniture store. Police were guarding only larger stores, including a downtown Wal-Mart and an appliance store. A brief outing during the eye's calm revealed a downtown Cancun littered with glass, tree trunks and cars up to their roofs in water. The only cleanup crew visible consisted of two workers using saws to break up a tangle of tree branches. The front half of a Burger King had collapsed, and at least one gas station had its roof blown away. State and federal officials said they had little information on damage because Wilma's winds, at 110 mph (175 kph), made reconnaissance almost impossible. Yucatan Gov. Patricio Patron told Formato 21 radio that one person was killed by a falling tree, but he offered no details. And in Playa del Carmen, two people died from injuries they sustained Friday when a gas tank exploded during the storm, Quintana Roo state officials said. The storm earlier killed 13 people in Jamaica and Haiti. Quintana Roo State Civil Protection Director Maj. Jose Nemecio said a few emergency crews were able to begin distributing emergency supplies in Playa del Carmen on Saturday. But there were few reports on the overall extent of the damage. On the island of Cozumel, which has been isolated since weathering the brunt of the storm on Friday, fruit and vegetable salesman Jorge Ham, 26, told The Associated Press by phone that winds had dropped significantly. He saw no catastrophic damage during a brief tour of downtown Saturday. In Cancun, the storm's angry winds ripped roofing off luxury hotels and knocked out windows, filling rooms and shelters with water and forcing some evacuees to seek higher ground. Others slept with plastic sheeting as bedding. Weak ceiling tiles forced officials to evacuate at least one downtown shelter housing some 1,000 people, mostly Americans. Hotel workers pushed furniture up against windows, but the force of the wind blasted through the improvised barriers. In the streets, office furniture and broken glass bobbed in water that sloshed between buildings. Residents watched the debris float by from upstairs balconies. Buildings shook in the wind as if earthquakes were hitting them, terrifying tourists and residents waiting out the storm in sweltering, dark shelters. President Vicente Fox planned to travel to the affected region on Sunday. In a taped address to the nation, he said that, while the Mexican government was taking care of thousands of stranded tourists, it hadn't forgotten its citizens. "Certainly we have been working with the hotels and tourism industry to protect the tourists and the visitors," he said. "But make no mistake. Our priority, our main focus is with our own people, and that's where we want to ensure that things go well." The army and navy were already preparing emergency supplies, including food, water, medicine and roofing, in various southern cities. Fox said they would be sent in as soon as possible. The US Embassy was sending consular officials to shelters Sunday, an effort to help people prepare for the evacuation of some 30,000 tourists after the storm. Even as it battered Mexico, the storm's outer bands whipped the western tip of Cuba, where the government evacuated more than 500,000 people. A tornado spun off from the storm flattened 20 homes and several tobacco-curing huts. Officials posted a hurricane watch Saturday for southern Florida and ordered an evacuation of the Keys as the storm's outermost rain reached parts of the state, causing minor flooding. At the same time, a tropical depression formed south of Puerto Rico, the National Hurricane Center said in Miami. If that strengthens into a tropical storm, it would be called Alpha because Wilma was the last name on the official storm list. The Greek alphabet has never been used in roughly 60 years of naming storms.