Around 30,000 tourists remained huddled in hotels and shelters on Saturday amid shrieking winds and shattering glass.

 

The eye of the category 3 storm, which had killed 13 people, first slammed into Cozumel Island - the worst-hit, and now cut off - and then headed north-northwest onto the mainland near the beach town of Playa de Carmen, south of Cancun.

 

The howling winds caused severe damage in Playa de Carmen, flattening dozens of wood-and-tarpaper houses, and sending everything from rooftop water tanks to boards used as window coverings flying through the air.

 

Slow storm

 

Worse was the slowness of the storm, which was almost stalled over the resort-studded coast since Friday.

 

"This is the equivalent of having four or five hurricanes of this size pass over one after the other, given the amount of time we have been suffering hurricane-force winds," said Quintana Roo Governor Felix Gonzalez Cantu, whose state includes Cancun. "Never in the history of Quintana Roo have we had a storm like this."

 

Sea water began reclaiming Cancun's hotel zone, built between the ocean and a lagoon; water stood several feet deep in the evacuated hotel zone. "The water is crossing over from the sea into the lagoon," said Gonzalez Cantu.

 

"This is the equivalent of having four or five hurricanes of this size pass over one after the other, given the amount of time we have been suffering hurricane-force winds"

Felix Gonzalez Cantu,
governor of Quintana Roo

Tourists and local residents at the Xbalamque Hotel, a downtown Cancun hostelry serving as shelter, listened in horror as windows blasted out, the wind howled and the building shook. Water ran one metre deep in the streets, flooding the ground floors of buildings.

 

"I never in my life wanted to live through something like this," said cook Guadalupe Santiago, 27. "There are no words" to describe it, she said.

 

Tired and hungry

 

Jan Hanshast, a tourist from Castle Rock, Colorado, stood in a water-and-debris filled hallway at the hotel. "My son's starting to lose it. He's tired and hungry," said Hanshast. As another howling burst of wind shook the building, he noted "hearing things like that doesn't help."

 

With "relentless" 195kph winds, the US National Hurricane Centre in Miami, Florida, said the storm was "really clobbering" the areas around Cozumel and Cancun, where it blew down trees that crushed some cars.

 

Gonzalez Cantu called the destruction "tremendous," but officials do not expect to be able to reach Cozumel - whose ferry service is out of commission - until late on Saturday, at the earliest, to assess the damage.

 

The slow-moving hurricane was expected to pound the area all day on Saturday as it passes over the tip of the Yucatan peninsula; it was then expected to emerge into the Gulf of Mexico, curl around Cuba and sprint toward Florida.

 

Hurricane watch

 

The Hurricane Centre said "a hurricane watch will likely be required for portions of central and southern Florida and the Florida keys later today".

 

"It's going to be a long couple of days here for the Yucatan Peninsula," said Max Mayfield, director of the Hurricane Centre.

 

All Saturday the slow-moving
hurricane pounded Cancun

The wait - in stifling gymnasiums or hotel ballrooms without electricity, with shrieking winds outside - was wearing on people's nerves.

 

People at some shelters slept under plastic sheeting. Power was cut to most of the region before the storm as a precaution.

 

"After one more day of this, I believe people will start getting cranky. Things could get messy," Scott Stout, 26, of Willisville, Illinois, said of his shelter at a Cancun sports hall.

 

Hundreds evacuated

 

As the eye of the storm approached Cancun, officials loaded hundreds of evacuees into buses and vans and moved them to other shelters after a downtown cultural centre suffered problems, apparently from ceiling tiles that threatened to collapse.

 

"Not even emergency vehicles have been able to go out on the streets because the winds are too strong"

Julio Torres,
Red Cross

Hotels being used as shelters pushed furniture up against windows, but the force of the wind blasted through such improvised barriers. Water poured into rooms and hallways through broken windows.

 

Reached by telephone, Julio Torres at the Red Cross office in Cozumel said "tin roofing is flying through the air everywhere. Palm trees are falling down. Signs are in the air, and cables are snapping."

 

"Not even emergency vehicles have been able to go out on the streets because the winds are too strong," Torres said.

 

The storm's centre passed between Puerto Morelos, a laid-back fishing town with some low-rise hotels, located about 35km south of Cancun, and Playa de Carmen, an increasingly bustling resort 64km south of Cancun.

 

Eerie calm

 

An eerie calm was reported in Playa de Carmen as the eye of the hurricane passed over, in contrast to the winds that had wrecked some structures there minutes before.

 

The area between the two is sparsely populated, but sprinkled with expensive, stand-alone resort compounds. Mexican President Vicente Fox said he planned to travel to the affected region as soon as possible.

 

"Now is the time to save lives and protect the population, and we are working on that," he said.

 

"Afterward, we will begin the phase of helping citizens and reconstruction."

 

At the same time, Wilma was pounding the western tip of Cuba, where the government evacuated more than 500,000 people. Forecasters said Wilma could bring as much as a meter of rain in parts of Cuba.

 

Cuban chaos

 

Waves of up to six metres crashed on the extreme westernmost tip of Cuba and heavy rains cut off several small communities. About 7000 residents were evacuated from the coastal fishing village of La Coloma in Cuba's southern Pinar del Rio province.

 

Hurricane Wilma is expected to
reach Florida by Monday

"We thought we'd be spending a lot less time here," Maria Elena Torre said at a shelter set up inside a boarding school. "Now we have no idea how long we'll be here."

 

The storm, inching along at 6kph was expected to slam on Monday into Florida, where emergency officials on Friday issued the first evacuation orders.

 

Streets were nearly empty and plywood covered most windows in the Florida Keys, which were under a voluntary evacuation order. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for areas close to the Gulf Coast, such as Naples and Marco Island.

 

Gas shortages

 

Scattered gas shortages were reported and traffic jams backed up highways as people fled Florida's west coast. Forecasters said the hurricane would likely weaken while over Mexico.

 

No deaths were immediately reported in Mexico, and Cancun Red Cross director Ricardo Portugal said the biggest problem had been "nervous crises" and 11 pregnant women ferried to hospitals because worries over the storm had induced labour.

 

Mexico declared a state of emergency in an additional 55 townships on the Yucatan peninsula on Friday.