Katrina & Beyond

Yucatan Absorbs Brunt of Wilma's Fury

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Hurricane Wilma's slow progress over Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula took a heavy toll on local villages and luxury resorts. The extent of the damage is not yet clear, but many locals face flooding and many tourists are stranded.


Hurricane Wilma's winds and rains stalled over Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula this weekend, pounding and flooding local villages and luxury resorts for more than 30 hours. The storm moved out over the Gulf of Mexico this morning as a Category 2 hurricane with sustained winds near 100 miles per hour. It is now creeping to the Northeast but officials at the National Hurricane Center expect it to rapidly pick up speed and some strength as it moves toward landfall on the west coast of Florida Monday morning. Wilma claimed at least seven lives in Mexico, and last week, the hurricane killed at least 13 people in Jamaica and Haiti. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Merida in the Yucatan on Wilma's destruction there.

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

The white sandy beaches of Mexico's Caribbean coasts were under water yesterday as huge waves smashed into luxury hotels along Cancun's ritzy resort zone. Tens of thousands of residents and tourists scrambled to higher ground. President Vicente Fox appeared on national television throughout the day reassuring citizens that food, medicines and construction material were on the way to affected areas.

President VICENTE FOX (Mexico): (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: As for the material losses, Fox said the country will rebuild and bounce back just as he says Mexico has always done from these types of disasters. He plans to tour Cancun and the Yucatan coast today. Alberto Hernandez of Mexico's meteorological service says Wilma's wrath was fueled by unseasonably hot weather.

Mr. ALBERTO HERNANDEZ (Mexico's Meteorological Service): (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Hernandez says Mexico has been breaking historic records all season with the hot weather fueling the tropical storms off the Caribbean. It's been nearly 20 years since the Yucatan Peninsula has experienced such a ferocious storm. In 1988, Hurricane Gilbert dumped torrential rains along the Caribbean coast over an eight-hour period. Wilma's wrath lasted more than 30 hours.

As winds subsided yesterday, some residents ventured out into Cancun's streets covered with debris, fallen trees and downed power lines. Police guarded large stores and at one point fired shots in the air to scare off several dozen looters, but with streets flooded, thousands of residents and tourists had no choice but to spend another night in sweltering shelters. Marsha Rother(ph) of Farmington, Minnesota, however, was lucky. She and her husband and twin teen-age boys got to enjoy a bit of their vacation before catching the last ferry off the island of Cozumel.

Ms. MARSHA ROTHER (Tourist): We had a good four days. The boys swam with the dolphins and we thought, `Oh, my gosh, this is paradise.' And then we've been running from the hurricane for three days. So we're exhausted, we're darned near broke and now we just want to go home.

KAHN: After the family's ferry ride, the Rothers were stuck in Cancun, but the following day, they caught a bus out and have been waiting in Merida, capital of Yucatan, for a plane to Mexico City and hopefully to the States.

Ms. ROTHER: We just want to go home. We want to go home. It's freezing cold in Minnesota and we don't care.

Unidentified Man: We're listening to what we want to hear.

KAHN: Hundreds of tourists straggled in to the Merida airport yesterday hoping for a flight out, but few were leaving. A tenacious tour guide managed to charter a plane from Honduras to take 40 stranded Italian tourists home, but Lynn Kohl of Alberta, Canada, has to wait until tomorrow or Tuesday to get a flight. She says what's an inconvenience for her and her husband is nothing, though, compared to the suffering for those left behind. Kohl says as she was evacuating out of the region by bus, she could see the type of poorly constructed homes residents outside of the tourist resorts were living in.

Ms. LYNN KOHL (Tourist): The roads are so bad you could kind of see into the bushes and you just know that these home weren't gonna hold up, so, I mean, that's who we feel bad for, eh?

KAHN: With Wilma headed toward Florida and winds dying down, Mexican officials are hoping to reach the most devastated regions today and bring in much needed supplies. And the US Embassy is hoping to send consular officials to shelters and begin the evacuation of thousands of American tourists.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Merida, Yucatan.

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