Powerful waves on Friday swallowed up white sand beaches in the popular resort of Cancun and electricity was cut along Mexico's Maya Riviera and on the island of Cozumel, a favorite of scuba divers and cruise ship passengers.

 

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in Miami said the hurricane's eyewall had hit Cozumel, a popular stop for divers and cruise ships where hundreds of residents and 970 tourists were riding out the hurricane.

 

Sturdy tropical trees danced in howling winds and others lay toppled in empty and flooded streets in the resort of Playa del Carmen, south of Cancun. Snapped electricity cables dangled above the streets, sending sparks flying.

 

"The sound of the wind is what is frightening," said Rossy Mischne, who was holed up inside the Cozumel hotel where she works.

 

Warning

 

Stinging rains gathered strength as Wilma, a Category 4 hurricane, moved in slowly from the Caribbean with winds of 145mph (230kph). Forecasters warned the storm could cause catastrophic damage.

 

Wilma is a Category 4 hurricane
and is moving slowly

Mexico's civil defence chief, Carmen Segura, on Friday said that almost 52,000 people had been evacuated in the Yucatan Peninsula, though most were staying in with relatives or friends.

 

About 20,000 tourists remained at shelters and hotels on the mainland south of Cancun, and an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 in the city itself.

 

About 1500 people were crowded into a dark, sweltering municipal gymnasium in downtown Cancun. Many took shelter under plastic tarpaulins because of a leaking ceiling.

 

Slow journey

 

The hurricane was expected to make an agonisingly slow journey to the tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and sideswipe Cuba - 220km (130 miles) east of Cancun - then swing east towards hurricane-weary Florida. 

 

"The sound of the wind is what is frightening"

Rossy Mischne,
Resident

Cuba was also already feeling Wilma's fury with up to 7in (17.1 cm) of rain in the west and 18ft (6m) waves pounding the Isle of Youth off its south coast, the Cuban weather institute said.

 

Cuba evacuated more than 350,000 people from low-lying areas and precarious buildings in case Wilma headed straight for the island over the weekend.

 

Wilma was expected to crash into heavily populated southern Florida late on Sunday, giving Florida residents another couple of days to stock up on drinking water and petrol.

 

The hurricane's eye is so large it might take hours to pass over land, leading to fears that confused residents might leave shelters in the calm of the middle of the storm.