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Wilma batters Yucatan peninsula

Hurricane expected to move toward Fla.

CANCUN, Mexico -- Hurricane Wilma struck the Yucatan peninsula yesterday, pounding beach resorts and dozens of fishing hamlets with 140 mile-per-hour winds and a 10-foot storm surge that sent water crashing over Cancun's white-sand beaches and into its exclusive hotel district.

The slow-moving hurricane reached Cozumel Island south of here as a Category 4 storm just after dawn, weakening slightly as it cut a swath across the peninsula. The eye of the storm was expected to pass over Cancun during the early morning today and then turn toward Florida, where authorities ordered a mandatory evacuation of low-lying areas on the southwest coast.

Felix Gonzalez Canto, the governor of Quintana Roo state, said Cancun, Cozumel, and Playa del Carmen were taking the brunt of the storm. He said some buildings on Cozumel Island that had been reinforced against hurricane-force winds had collapsed.

But as of early last evening there were no reports of deaths, and the governor expressed confidence that his state would be able to withstand the storm.

''We are sure we will get through this because among the people of Quintana Roo we have a strong culture of hurricane preparedness," Gonzalez Canto said.

The eye of the hurricane was 35 miles wide and took as long as seven hours to pass over a given spot, leading Mexican officials to express concern that many people might be fooled by the eye's calm winds and leave their shelters prematurely.

Cuba's official news agency reported that 200,000 people had been evacuated from low-lying areas on the island's western coast across the Yucatan Channel from Mexico.

Earlier this week, as it lumbered westward in the Caribbean, US officials said Wilma had become the most intense hurricane ever detected in the Atlantic basin. Local authorities ordered evacuations from Central America to south Florida and 13 people were reported killed in Haiti and Jamaica.

An estimated 30,000 tourists remained in shelters and hotels in and around Cancun. But most of the residents in this city of 500,000 people had been evacuated as the leading edge of the storm downed trees and flooded streets.

Downtown Cancun was deserted except for fire crews in yellow rain slickers, and all the area's department stores and boutiques were boarded up. Federal police sealed off the hotel zone to prevent looting.

''People warn us, and it's up to us to find safety," said Alberto Lemos, a real estate agent. ''If things are bad you stay inside. If it's really bad you go hide in the bathroom."

Mexican meteorologists said Wilma was typical of late-season hurricanes: moving slowly and erratically. Advancing to the north at less than 5 miles per hour, it was expected to leave the Yucatan by late morning today after lingering over the peninsula more than 24 hours.

Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said the storm had ''the potential to do catastrophic damage." Mexico, he said yesterday, was ''getting the worst of it right now."

After passing through the Yucatan, the US meteorologists said Wilma was forecast to move into the Gulf of Mexico and then turn toward Florida. But the longer Wilma stayed over Yucatan, the less likely the United States would face a dangerous storm.

In downtown Cancun yesterday, flood waters were lapping against doorways and the rain was horizontal. Tree trunks bent to the point of snapping.

''Exotic, wonderful Cancun," quipped Omar Lincona, as he surveyed the scene from the relative safety of the City Express Hotel, some 3 miles from the beach.

Lincona is a 22-year-old television director who had come to work at the MTV Latin America Music Video Awards, which were postponed shortly after he arrived.

Among the tourists stranded here was 51-year-old Chicago resident Sam Greenberg. Having traveled to a remote area near Playa del Carmen, he didn't realize a hurricane was heading his way until he saw a group of men nailing boards to their windows.

''We were looking for a place to get away," Greenberg said. ''But we got so far away we didn't even hear about Wilma."

Yesterday morning, authorities turned off power throughout Cancun as a precautionary measure.

In Playa del Carmen, on the mainland opposite Cozmel, seven people were injured in the explosion of a gas tank. But in the city's shelter, Mexican media reported, two women went into labor, giving birth to a boy and a girl.

On Isla Mujeres, an island getaway off the coast of Cancun, Mayor Manuela Godoy told a local radio station that the situation was critical. The island's salt flats were flooding and rising waters were threatening nearby buildings.

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