Mexico Begins Evacuations Ahead of Wilma

Evacuation efforts are under way in Cancun, on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, ahead of Hurricane Wilma. The storm, currently at Category 4 strength, is expected to reach the Yucatan shore early Friday. Dudley Althaus of the Houston Chronicle provides details.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Hurricane Wilma has weakened to a Category 4 hurricane, but forecasters still say it is extremely dangerous. Today, Florida's governor, Jeb Bush, declared a state of emergency there. The storm is expected to reach Florida's southwest coast on Sunday.

To the south, Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula is bracing for a direct hit from Hurricane Wilma early tomorrow. Reporter Dudley Althaus of the Houston Chronicle spoke to us from the Cancun airport.

Mr. DUDLEY ALTHAUS (Houston Chronicle): It was fairly rainy this morning, pretty hard tropical rains, but it's been intermittent. Right now it's just just kind of overcast.

SIEGEL: Now what about the residents of the area or the workers at the resorts? Where are they going to go when the hurricane comes ashore?

Mr. ALTHAUS: The city has shelters for these people at schools and health centers and that sort of thing. A lot of people will stay at their house. People here are kind of used to tropical storms. But I was just out in the hotel district of the island in Cancun and there are still thousands of workers still out there waiting for transportation back to the mainland, back to the city.

SIEGEL: What kind of transportation would that be? Is it...

Mr. ALTHAUS: They're letting buses through. Everybody else is restricted from getting onto the hotel zone and they're turning them away at the entrances.

SIEGEL: Now, as you say, this is an area that is not unfamiliar with tropical storms.

Mr. ALTHAUS: That's correct. There was just a storm here--well, Emily was supposed to hit Cancun in June, but then it diverted further to the south down below Tulum.

SIEGEL: And people there--Do people there seem familiar with the experience? Are they especially worried about Wilma? How would you describe what you're hearing?

Mr. ALTHAUS: It doesn't seem that--there's not really panic buying. I was in the stores this morning; there's not really panic buying. Many people stocked up in late June when Emily was supposed to hit, and so they still have that supply, the emergency supplies. Most of the stores in the city are shut down now.

SIEGEL: Is this an important season for the hotels in Yucatan?

Mr. ALTHAUS: No, it's kind of a low season, still. City officials say there's between 18,000 and 20,000 in Cancun, tourists...

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ALTHAUS: ...and down the coast on what they call the Riviera Maya, probably another 15,000 in the hotels. So it is a low season. The people here seem to be a mix between Europeans and Americans, most of the tourists.

SIEGEL: When you hear authorities there talk about this, is there any level of impact or particular danger that, to them, would be the worst possible outcome of Wilma?

Mr. ALTHAUS: No, nobody's talked about that so far. I've got to say, the Mexican government at all levels has greatly improved its preparations. I was here during Hurricane Gilbert, which hit Cancun square on in 1988. There were no preparations at that time, and now they are on the radio constantly, telling people to find shelter, stock up, what the storm's about. They're announcing things both in Spanish and in Maya, the local dialects, and it's constant. I'd say it's greatly improved.

SIEGEL: And this, you say, is in stark contrast to what was going on, say, 15 years ago.

Mr. ALTHAUS: Yeah. Fifteen years ago when Gilbert hit, I got here the morning it hit, and tourists had had absolutely no warning and they were just kind of wandering around dazed.

SIEGEL: Are the structures at all in danger here, or has the place been pretty well built for tropical storms?

Mr. ALTHAUS: That's to be seen. I mean, I think Cancun has developed dramatically since Gilbert hit 17 years ago. I was just on the hotel zone this morning and the waves are already quite large, maybe six to eight feet, and crashing over the barriers in some parts. And so it really remains to be seen. And then there might be a backwash out of the back lagoon, as well, and they might have some flooding. So it remains to be seen what this storm will do. It is dropping in intensity. And storms have a way of diverting from Cancun, and this one might, as well, but people are, you know, expecting it to hit full on.

SIEGEL: Well, take care tomorrow, and thanks for talking with us.

Mr. ALTHAUS: Thanks very much.

SIEGEL: That's Dudley Althaus, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, speaking to us from Cancun in Mexico.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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