CANCUN, Mexico, AP – Hurricane Wilma drifted northward away from the Yucatan peninsula Sunday morning but furious winds and rain were still punishing Mexico”s Caribbean coastline, where the storm killed at least seven people.
At 5 a.m. EDT Sunday, Wilma was a Category 2 hurricane with winds near 100 mph. The National Hurricane Center in Miami predicted the storm would significantly pick up speed on Sunday and sideswipe Cuba before slamming into Florida.
In Mexico”s Yucatan peninsula, flood waters forced tourists in hotels and shelters to climb to higher floors on Saturday, as Wilma ripped away storefronts and peeled back roofs in Cancun.
On the island of Cozumel off the Yucatan coast, a Navy rescue mission saw three bodies floating down a flooding avenue and a fourth in a town square, bringing the death toll in Mexico from the storm to at least seven. Cozumel had been isolated since weathering the brunt of the storm on Friday
Authorities were not yet able to assess the full extent of storm damage as winds made surveillance by authorities almost impossible. Three feet of water blocked coastal highways.
At 5 a.m. EDT, the hurricane”s center was 40 miles north of Cancun and about 350 miles west-southwest of Key West Florida. It was moving slowly to the northeast at about 3 mph.
After a lull, violent winds and rains slammed Cancun again after dark Saturday, pushing flood waters even higher.
Sunday could bring an additional 10 inches to 15 inches of rain to the already saturated Yucatan peninsula and western Cuba, the National Hurricane Center said.
On Saturday, the hurricane sent water surging over the narrow strip of sand housing Cancun”s luxury hotels and raucous bars, joining the sea with the resort”s alligator-infested lagoon.
Lobbies were gutted as waves from the open sea slammed into some low-lying hotels, Quintana Roo state Gov. Felix Gonzalez said.
Cancun residents had ventured briefly from their hiding spots to survey the flooded, debris-filled streets as the eye of the storm passed the famous resort.
Downtown Cancun was littered with glass, tree trunks and cars up to their roofs in water. The front half of a Burger King had collapsed, and at least one gas station had its roof blown away.
Yucatan Gov. Patricio Patron told Formato 21 radio that one person was killed by a falling tree, but he offered no details. And in Playa del Carmen, two people died from injuries they sustained Friday when a gas tank exploded during the storm, Quintana Roo state officials said.
The storm earlier killed 13 people in Jamaica and Haiti.
Quintana Roo State Civil Protection Director Maj. Jose Nemecio said a few emergency crews were able to begin distributing emergency supplies in Playa del Carmen, to the south of Cancun, where screaming winds had flattened wood-and-tarpaper houses.
Rescue efforts were suspended on Cozumel because of severe weather on the island, where the storm washed away a jetty and did heavy damage to Naval facilities.
In Cancun, the wind ripped part of the ceiling off a gymnasium-turned-shelter, forcing the evacuation of more than 1,000 people late Friday. Stacy Presley, a 22-year-old honeymooner from Milwaukee, was among them.
She and 120 others were moved to a kindergarten where they had to sleep on miniature desks nearly submerged in rising flood waters. There was no food.
She and her husband fled when the winds died down.
"There were people getting sick from the urine on the floor," she said. "We had to do something, so we took off. We were running through flooded streets, passing downed power lines."
She ended up at another school sheltering more than 2,000 people. It had mats to sleep on, emergency officials and supplies.
Nearby, Loni Steingraph, 40, of Austin, Texas, praised the shelter, saying: "I booked a four-star hotel, I didn”t know it would include a four-star shelter too."
Benjamin Rodriguez, 49, of Cleveland, spent the night in a classroom with his 11-month-old granddaughter. He and several others had to lean against a door that the wind kept blowing open.
"I feel for the citizens here because we get to go home eventually," said Rodriguez, who came with 32 family members for his son”s wedding. "They have to stay and rebuild everything that was destroyed."
Well inland, Juan Carlos Fernandez, a 39-year-old clothing designer, said the winds were so strong that he and two friends shuttered themselves in a closet.
"Everything went flying. The electric garage door went flying," he said. "I”m afraid — very, very afraid."
President Vicente Fox planned to travel to the affected region on Sunday.
The army and navy prepared to move in emergency supplies, including food, water, medicine and roofing. Fox said they will be sent in as soon as possible.
The U.S. Embassy was sending consular officials to shelters Sunday, an effort to help people prepare for the evacuation of some 30,000 tourists after the storm. The U.S. government also offered to donate $200,000 in aid.
In Cuba, the government evacuated more than 560,000 people, while a tornado spun off from the storm flattened 20 homes and several tobacco-curing huts.
The twister demolished the wooden home of Caridad Garcia, who huddled with her family in the bathroom, the only room left standing. "It sounded like the world was coming to an end," said Garcia, 58.
In Florida, residents streamed out of the Keys and coastal communities under mandatory evacuation orders after officials posted a hurricane warning for the entire southern peninsula, the Florida Keys, Florida Bay and the Dry Tortugas.
At the same time, a record 22nd tropical storm of the Atlantic hurricane season formed off the island of Hispanola, shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where authorities warned of possible deadly flash floods and mudslides.
Officials used the Greek alphabet to name Tropical Storm Alpha, after running all the way through the 2005 storm name list.