Lashing wind and rain pounded Mexican beach resorts today and thousands of tourists hunkered down in shelters to escape Hurricane Wilma, which churned in the Caribbean on its way to Florida. Heavy rain was coming down in diagonal sheets and howling winds were buckling sturdy trees.
Tourists were evacuated from luxury beachfront hotels all along Mexico's "Maya Riviera" coast, and the normally calm, turquoise Caribbean seas heaved and Wilma dumped rain on streets patrolled by soldiers ordering people to take cover. Cuba evacuated more than 200,000 people.
Wilma, a Category 4 storm with winds of 150 mph, churned toward the Yucatбn Peninsula and South Florida after its outer bands hit Haiti and Jamaica, where it killed at least 13 people.
Forecasters said Wilma likely would make a sharp right turn toward Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, after the storm gets caught in the westerlies, the strong wind current that generally blows toward the east. It is expected to make landfall in Florida on Sunday.
"At least for the next couple of days here, we think we're going to have a very powerful hurricane here in the Caribbean," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Briefly the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record, Wilma was a potentially catastrophic Category 5 storm before weakening. Its 150-mph winds made it more powerful than Hurricane Katrina.
Hundreds of schools in the Yucatбn Peninsula were ordered closed yesterday and today, and many were turned into shelters. Airlines started canceling flights. At the Cancъn airport, hundreds of tourists waited for flights or sought rental cars, taxis or ATMs.
Matt Williams and Jeff Davidson of Westfield, N.J., were going back to their hotel in Playa del Carmen south of Cancъn after their flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was canceled. At the hotel, they faced a night in a ballroom-turned-emergency shelter, according to Seattle Times.
"You see the lines. I don't want to stand there for two hours and then decide what to do," said Williams, 26.
Asked if Katrina was on his mind, he said: "You see that on TV, all that destruction. All you can do is hope that it doesn't happen here."