CANCUN, Mexico—Five days after Hurricane Wilma shattered hotels and stripped beaches of their sand, thousands of gleeful Americans finally escaped this Caribbean resort Wednesday aboard dozens of aircraft provided for free by the Mexican government.
Mexican officials released no numbers on how many Americans were evacuated, but buses arrived at the Cancun airport throughout the day. Lines of vehicles were backed up for two miles trying to get into the airport. Only people aboard official Mexican buses were allowed past a checkpoint three miles from the airport.
Despite the wait and confusion, the possibility of escape from a city with no electricity and little food and water put many of the tourists in high spirits. Some shouted "Viva, Mexico" as their buses inched their way toward the airport.
Others spoke gratefully of the assistance they'd received in the aftermath of the storm, which stalled over Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula for 36 hours before moving quickly to Florida.
"The Mexicans, our hotel staff, even poor people next to our shelter were great. They fed us, kept us safe and out of danger," said Geri Schubert, 54, of Tacoma, Wash., who was evacuated with her husband, Ron, and 400 other guests from the Grand Melia Hotel to the Leonardo da Vinci private high school for the duration of the storm.
On Wednesday, she and her husband were among 40 Americans aboard a bus with the name "A Passion for Perfection" stenciled on its side. The Americans were tired and had gone days without showers. Some had lost luggage in the hectic evacuation and had only the clothes on their backs.
Mark Parker, of Omaha, Neb., expressed frustration at what he felt was a lack of assistance by the U.S. government in helping the estimated 40,000 Americans believed stranded by the storm.
"The U.S. Embassy and consulate told us we were on our own. They wanted us to leave Cancun at our own expense and didn't offer us anything," he said. He was impressed by Mexico's offer of free transportation. "We're certainly coming back to Mexico and Cancun," he said. "They are wonderful people."
"Even the poorest Mexicans opened their doors to us," said Pam Parker. "One lady offered her house and made us coffee when we were running out."
While the evacuations pleased some, many thousands of others remained behind, awaiting still more flights in coming days. Many said they didn't know what to do or where to go.
"We've been here since last Wednesday and our airline and travel agent keep telling us to wait for the military to pick us up, but we haven't heard anything," said Susanne Salvatore, who came to Cancun to get married and who, along with new husband, Nick, was due back in Detroit on Saturday for a reception.
Three hundred guests have been invited.
A drive through Cancun shows that nearly all its high-rise hotels were damaged. Waters from the storm reached many hotels' third and fourth floors.
Some roads out of the city were all but impassable. The main highway to Merida, the capital of Yucatan state, remained under 6 feet of water in parts, though busloads of tourists still tried to cross in hopes of catching a flight home. The Merida airport was reported mobbed with people desperate for a way out.
But Cancun residents appeared upbeat and optimistic that hotels and restaurants would reopen by December, when the peak tourism season begins.
Repair crews gradually were restoring power to the region, and many seaside resorts, including the popular Playa del Carmen and Isla Mujeres, were slowly returning to normal. Military trucks, helicopters and boats brought emergency food and potable water to the area around the clock.
Bulldozers and cranes were clearing debris, including huge chunks of limestone that had been washed onto the beaches. Officials said nature would take care of the stretches of beaches pummeled by rocks in the hotel zone.
Some restaurants and supermarkets were opening and some resigned tourists went to the beach for suntans as they waited to leave.
"Instead of crying, everyone is working," said Emiliano Carranza, an architect here and the grandson of Venustiano Carranza, who was Mexico's president during its revolution in the early 20th century. "No matter what, Cancun is still the admirable destination it's always been."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Janet Schwartz contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WILMA
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