Mexico picks up after Wilma

As locals and tourists in Mexico catch their breath, Florida braces for the storm.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Hurricane Wilma slammed into the coast of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula this past weekend with a force never before seen, according to many residents here.

"It hurts my heart to see this kind of damage," says Saul Sanchez Rodriguez, a doctor. "It will take weeks and months to pull ourselves together now."

"Hurricane Gilbert really hurt us bad, and this one has been worse," says Hugo Lecanda, the manager of the Marriot Hotel in Cancún, referring to the 1988 storm that shut down the parts of the area for months.

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Even as residents in the Yucatán began to assess the severe damage from Wilma, Florida residents were busy bracing for the hurricane's arrival in what has become the stormiest season on record. Mandatory evacuations were in place for low-lying areas along the southwest coast and the Florida Keys. FEMA has prepositioned truckloads of ice, water, waterproof tarps, and 13 million ready-to-eat meals in Homestead and Jacksonville.

Wilma, which hit the Yucatán as a Category 4 hurricane Thursday night, pounded the area throughout the day Saturday. At its peak Friday night, winds reached 145 miles per hour and rain came down in torrents.

By Saturday night, the hurricane had slowed to a Category 2 but the winds made it still nearly impossible to walk outdoors.

Mr. Lecanda said his hotel, like most of the others on the main tourist strip along the coast, had suffered heavy damage. Speaking by radio to his small staff, he reported that windows had blown out, the lobby ceiling had crashed down, and water was four feet high. Access to the main beachfront strip was completely blocked by fallen trees and metal that had blown of buildings.

On streets leading to downtown Cancún, gas stations were overturned, a Chinese restaurant was blown down the road in its entirety, a Jeep had been thrown through a supermarket window, and toys from a giant toy store were flung in every direction, with mangled teddy bears stuck in broken roof rafters.

Some 12,000 tourists in Cancún and 20,000 in surrounding areas were evacuated Thursday afternoon and remained in shelters at press time. Tens of thousands of residents were moved into schools, city centers, and convention halls that provided refuge. Food in some shelters was running low Sunday, and there had been no electricity or water for 48 hours.

Radio and telephone towers were down by Friday night, and communication with the outside world was minimal.

Many expressed appreciation for the helpfulness of local officials, even as the situation remained somewhat chaotic.

"People in the shelters have been wonderful and have been coming through to explain what's going on," says Rob Barber from Phoenix, as he huddled in a candlelit room with his wife, three children, and another family of five. "But everyone says something different, and we don't know what's going on. It's not easy after a while."

The airport, which began turning away passengers and canceling flights Thursday afternoon, remained shut and difficult to access Sunday. Many of the dozen or so hospitals in the area were also hard to access.

Out on roads, a few looters were seen entering convenience stores and making off with water and food. But the majority of those who came out onto the streets over the weekend were there to help.

Mr. Sanchez Rodriguez, whose medical office and home were heavily damaged, decided to drive around in his pickup truck Saturday to clear roads with his assistant, whose thatched-roof house was demolished.

Wearing heavy gloves and plastic sheets as raincoats, the men drove slowly around Cancún, the wind rattling their car, to pick up heavy debris. Other people were sawing up fallen trees.

"This is my city, and it's a beautiful one," says Sanchez. "We don't wait here for help to come to us - we get going."

"If we clear the roads," he explained, the Army, Marines, firemen, and others would be able to pass more easily in days to come.

Florida prepares

As Wilma stalled over the Yucatán, Floridians used the time to prepare for the storm. Some boarded up their homes and businesses. Others traveled to safer ground.

By Sunday, residents were feeling the strain of too much waiting. Business owners in Key West complained that the slow-moving storm was costing $2 million to $5 million a day.

As if Wilma weren't enough, a large patch of stormy weather near the Dominican Republic was designated Tropical Storm Alpha. It marks the first time forecasters have run through the entire 21-name roster of tropical storm and hurricane names in a single year. Alpha was expected to veer to the northeast into the open ocean, avoiding the US mainland.

A honeymoon to remember

In Cancun, which attracts some 2 million visitors annually, many would-be brides, grooms, and honeymooners were taking the weather in stride.

Christie Cyanowsky and Michael Hirsch from Charlotte, N.C., were going to get married this Saturday. Kurt Gooden and Chari Thomas-Gooden, from Frederick, Md. were on their honeymoon.

Newly engaged Yadi Garcia and Matthew Lopes had come from Providence, R.I., to meet their wedding planner. Helger Cunha, also from Providence, was going to propose to his girlfriend, Sandra Massa.

For all, it was a special weekend in more ways than one. Mr. Cunha put an engagement ring on the finger of the bride-to-be as she slept last week.

"She was, I think, the happiest woman in the world," he says. Five days later, he was conked out on a dirty mattress in the Benito Juarez school here, in a dark room filled with strangers.

"All this is bad," says Ms. Thomas-Gooden, who was sharing her honeymoon weekend with Garcia and Lopez, the ladies on a bed, the men on the floor. "But it did not ruin our honeymoon. There is no pool and no beach, but we get time to spend together, so it's OK."

Warren Richey contributed from St. Petersburg, Fla. Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today.

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