Wilma Floods Yucatan, Strands Tourists

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Torrential rains trigger flash floods in the resort towns of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, where at least seven people are dead. As many as 20,000 tourists are trapped, with limited food. Noel Randewich of Reuters describes the scene in Cancun.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

The Mexican military is out clearing debris and trying to get food and water into the Yucatan Peninsula after Hurricane Wilma pounded the region for two days. The storm blew down trees and power lines, damaged homes and businesses and caused dangerous flash floods. Hurricane Wilma is now blamed for several deaths in Mexico; it already killed 13 people in Jamaica and Haiti.

Just hours after officials opened access to Cancun today, Reuters correspondent Noel Randewich was able to reach the popular strip of resorts on the beach there.

Mr. NOEL RANDEWICH (Reuters): It's a loss. Palm trees all over the place have fallen over, hotel have had windows blown out of their lobbies, windows blown out of their restaurants. Several rooms' windows are broken. You can see bits of debris hanging out of them, bits of wood, bits of furniture. Much of the beach, which is probably the most important part of Cancun for most people, has essentially disappeared, and in its place now you see jagged rocks and just a little bit of sand.

ELLIOTT: Have you been able to speak to people who were stranded there during the height of the storm?

Mr. RANDEWICH: Not a lot of people were actually stranded on this strip during the storm. The government was very, very good at evacuating people that wanted to leave quickly. But there were, I understand, up to a thousand people who stayed here either as employees, many of them security guards, but also a few brave people who own apartments. Those people are all amazed. People in Mexico, people from Mexico tend to use Hurricane Humberto from 1998 to measure other hurricanes, and everybody tells me that this one was worse.

ELLIOTT: We've heard reports that people are wandering through the streets there trying to find food in the aftermath of the storm.

Mr. RANDEWICH: That's exactly the case. There are close to 20,000 stranded tourists here who spent the last three nights, and will probably spend a fourth night, in shelters where the staff had planned to keep them there for only one night. So for many, many of them, water began to run short, although they haven't run out. Some people have run out of food. I've heard stories of people surviving over the last day and a half on potato chips. And those people, as soon as the rain stopped this morning, were out on the street looking around, standing in awe at some of the destruction they've seen.

ELLIOTT: Because that storm did slow down and stay over that area for so long, it was just inundated with rain. We've heard reports of flash flooding and people being in dire conditions. Is the water still there, or is it starting to recede?

Mr. RANDEWICH: It's starting to go down. There was flash flooding. I went yesterday with rescue workers to visit a neighborhood that's known typically for flooding during hurricanes or during storms, and we got there and the water was waist deep. And apparently, the swamp beside this neighborhood, as well, was invested with crocodiles, so I took notice of the rescuers when they told me to watch out for things moving through the water.

ELLIOTT: Hmm. Have seen a presence of the military there?

Mr. RANDEWICH: I have. The military is helping to clear streets by removing trees with heavy trucks and winches, by using chain saws to cut through trees, maintaining roadblocks to guard particularly dangerous areas or areas under water that they don't people to pass through. They're helping patrol the streets at night; that's a completely normal thing here.

ELLIOTT: This area that was hit by the storm is very important to the economy there because of the tourist business there. Do you have a sense that this could be a real big financial blow for that area?

Mr. RANDEWICH: I have a big sense that it will be a financial blow to the area. I spoke to people out here on a tourist strip where I am right now. I just spoke to one gentleman who owns a small shopping mall with a McDonald's and a pharmacy in it, and he reckons that it will be at least three months before things get anywhere near back to normal. I spoke as well to an Argentine owner of a discotheque here who figured he can have his discotheque up and running within about a month, but he had no idea when tourists would really begin to trust the idea of taking a trip to Cancun again.

ELLIOTT: Reuters correspondent Noel Randewich, speaking to us from Cancun.

Thank you for talking with us.

Mr. RANDEWICH: You're welcome.

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