CANCUN, Mexico – Hurricane Wilma struck the Yucatan peninsula Friday, pounding beach resorts and dozens of fishing hamlets with 140 mph winds and a 10-foot storm surge that sent water crashing into Cancun’s exclusive hotel district.
The slow-moving hurricane reached Cozumel Island south of here as a Category 4 storm just after dawn, weakening slightly as it cut a swath across the peninsula. The eye of the storm was expected to pass over Cancun early today and then turn toward Florida, where authorities ordered a mandatory evacuation on the southwest coast.
Felix Gonzalez Canto, the governor of Quintana Roo state, said Cancun, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen were taking the brunt of the storm. He said some buildings on Cozumel Island that had been reinforced against hurricane-force winds had collapsed.
But as of early Friday evening there were no reports of deaths, and the governor expressed confidence that his state would be able to withstand the storm.
The eye of the hurricane was 35 miles wide and took as long as seven hours to pass over a given spot, leading Mexican officials to express concern that many people might be fooled by the eye’s calm winds and leave their shelters prematurely.
Cuba’s official news agency reported that 200,000 people had been evacuated from the island’s western coast across the Yucatan Channel from Mexico.
Earlier this week, as it lumbered westward in the Caribbean, U.S. officials said Wilma had become the most intense hurricane ever detected in the Atlantic basin. Evacuations were ordered from Central America to south Florida and 13 people were reported killed in Haiti and Jamaica.
An estimated 30,000 tourists remained in shelters and hotels in and around Cancun. But most of the residents in this city of 500,000 people had been evacuated.
Downtown Cancun was deserted except for fire crews in yellow rain slickers, and all the area’s department stores and boutiques were boarded up. Federal police sealed off the hotel zone to prevent looting.
“People warn us, and it’s up to us to find safety,” said Alberto Lemos, a real estate agent. “If things are bad you stay inside. If it’s really bad you go hide in the bathroom.”
Mexican meteorologists said Wilma was typical of late-season hurricanes: moving slowly and erratically. Advancing north at less than 5 mph, it was expected to leave the Yucatan by late morning today after lingering over the peninsula more than 24 hours.
Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said the storm had “the potential to do catastrophic damage.” Mexico, he said Friday, was “getting the worst of it right now.”
After passing through the Yucatan, U.S. meteorologists said, Wilma was forecast to move into the Gulf of Mexico and then turn toward Florida. But the longer Wilma stayed over Yucatan, the less likely the United States would face a dangerous storm.
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