CANCUN, Mexico (AP) – Punishing winds and rain pummeled the island of Cozumel early Friday and Cancun braced for the brunt of Wilma”s wrath as the massive hurricane inched toward Mexico”s resort-studded coastline, where thousands of stranded tourists hunkered down in shelters and hotel ballrooms.
Cuba evacuated more than 200,000 people in the face of the Wilma, which has already killed at least 13 people in Haiti and Jamaica. The hurricane is expected to hit Mexico and sideswipe Cuba”s tip, 220 kilometers (130 miles) east of Cancun, then swing east and head toward hurricane-weary Florida.
The Category 4 hurricane, once the most intense on record in the Americas, was already hitting Cozumel, a popular stop for divers and cruise ship passengers and where hundreds of residents and 970 tourists were riding out the hurricane.
"The most important thing now … is to protect lives, protect the lives of our children, of our grandparents," President Vicente Fox said in a broadcast address to the nation. "Possessions can be replaced."
Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami said that "as it hits the Yucatan peninsula, it has the potential to do catastrophic damage."
With winds of 240 kph (150 mph,) Wilma is more powerful than Hurricane Katrina at the time it plowed into the U.S. Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, killing more than 1,200 people. The National Hurricane Center in Miami said that by early Friday, the storm”s slow-moving, wobbly center was roughly 90 kilometers (55 miles) southeast of Cozumel. The hurricane was moving toward the northwest at 6 mph (9 kph,) which was expected to bring the eye to shore by midday.
Forecasters said the storm could strengthen to a Category 5 hurricane before hitting land. Its slow progress delayed its expected arrival in Florida until Monday, but fueled fears that it would have more time to dump rain and pummel the low-lying Mayan Riviera, possibly causing major damage.
The hurricane was expected to churn over land for a full day.
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.
At the beachside Playa Azul hotel on Cozumel”s north end, manager Martha Nieto said "the waves are getting very high."
"We wish it was over. The waiting drives you to desperation," Nieto said by telephone.
After airports closed late Thursday, desperate tourists who had lined up for hours in a failed bid to get on the last planes out were instead shuttled from luxury hotels to sweaty emergency shelters, or crowded into hotel ballrooms used as storm shelters.
Devon Anderson, 21, from Sacramento, California, said he was packed into a local school with other Americans, and that the army never arrived to board up the windows.
"There”s no food, no water," he said. "We”ve pretty much just been deserted."
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.
Some, like 30-year-old Carlos Porta of Barcelona, Spain, were handed plastic bags with a pillow and blanket. "From a luxury hotel to a shelter. It makes you angry. But what can you do?" he said. "It”s just bad luck."
In Cancun, high winds bent palm trees and waves gobbled the city”s white-sand beaches. By Thursday afternoon, 47 hotels were evacuated and the normally busy tourist zone was deserted.
Early Wednesday, Wilma became the most intense hurricane recorded in the Atlantic. The storm”s 882 millibars of pressure broke the record low of 888 set by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Lower pressure brings faster winds.
With Florida the following target, Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, and officials cleared tourists out of the exposed Florida Keys.
Across Florida”s southwest coast, people put up shutters, bought canned goods and bottled water and waited in ever-growing lines at gas stations.
In Belize, a nation south of Mexico”s Yucatan Peninsula, officials canceled cruise ship visits and tourists were evacuated from islands offshore.