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Wilma batters Cancun, Cozumel; arrival in Florida delayed

MIAMI—The Mexican tourist havens of Cozumel and Cancun endured a slow-motion assault Friday by a ferocious Hurricane Wilma. The storm's grinding passage through the Yucatan Peninsula—moving no faster than a jogger—again delayed its projected arrival in Florida.

In Cancun, roofs flew away in the 140-mph wind and tin siding sliced the air. Windows shattered and falling trees crushed cars. Ninety percent of the city lost power even before Wilma's core reached land.

The hurricane moved with tormenting slowness—a forward speed of 5 mph, prolonging a Yucatan agony that could persist until Saturday night. An incredible 40 inches of rain were possible in parts of the Yucatan and western Cuba. Forecasters also warned of 11-foot coastal storm surges.

"We're really taking a beating," said Israel Reyes de la Cruz, a security guard at the La Voz de Mexico newspaper in Cancun. "There's glass everywhere, sheer glass. It looks like everything is getting destroyed."

Next comes Florida.

The latest prediction: Wilma's core could strike the state's southwest coast around 4 p.m. Monday as a Category 1 or 2 storm, though weak atmospheric steering currents made that more of a guess than a firm forecast.

Day after day this week, Floridians awakened to learn that Wilma was still three days away.

"We're calling it the `Groundhog Hurricane,'" said Linette Trabulsy, a spokeswoman for St. Lucie County, referring to the Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day."

Said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in west Miami-Dade County: "By the time this gets here, I could be retired."

Still, Wilma's outermost rain drizzled and occasionally poured on South Florida throughout the day, and the weather there should slowly deteriorate as the weekend unfolds. Two to four inches of rain were predicted for South Florida and the Keys through Sunday.

On Monday, regardless of the exact path of the core—it can't be determined this far in advance—nearly the entire Florida peninsula could be swept by tropical storm winds of 39 to 74 mph, and heavy rain.

One leading indicator of trouble to come: Thousands of residents of tony Naples and tonier Marco Island were ordered to evacuate.

Another: Officials in Key West urged—but did not order—residents to leave. That order will likely come Saturday, as will the first U.S. storm watches and warnings.

But in the Yucatan, the waiting for Wilma was over.

Wilma's Category 4 core crashed into the island of Cozumel, then passed close to the high-rise tourist center of Cancun, a seaside city lined with Miami Beach-style hotels, restaurants and shopping centers.

Thousands of residents and stranded tourists sought safety in public shelters and hotel ballrooms. Others were bused to distant cities.

"I thought I was coming here for a grand old time of warm wind, sun and sand," said Louis Robinson, who decided to vacation in Cancun but was evacuated to Telchac Puerto on the other side of the peninsula. "Now, I don't know when we'll be able to return to Connecticut."

Wilma already has killed 13 people in Haiti and Jamaica. No casualty reports arrived immediately from Mexico.

By midafternoon, however, authorities were swamped with calls for help from people whose homes came apart around them.

"We're getting lots of calls, mostly trees down and houses losing their roofs and tin siding," said Miguel Yepez, a Cancun firefighter. "People suddenly need to evacuate and have nowhere to go. I look out the window and I see sheets of metal flying."

Silvia Barrera, who's in charge of publishing The Miami Herald's edition in Cancun, also looked out her window.

"The trees are completely bent, doubled over from the wind," she said. "The wind is hitting us vertically, so there's just nothing you can do about it."

In Cuba, 367,000 people were evacuated and extremely heavy rain fell in the western and central parts of the island.

"There's a lot of water and a little wind," said Marilyn Montaner, reached by phone from Pinar del Rio. "And by a lot of water, I mean a lot. It's a hurricane, all right."

Forecasters said Wilma was trapped between two high-pressure systems, causing its slow passage over the Yucatan. The lengthy stay over land will sap its strength, they said, but not destroy it because the peninsula—a place of lagoons, lakes and mangroves—is flat and fairly friendly to hurricanes.

As a consequence, forecasters again slowed the storm's projected voyage to Florida.

But arrive it will, they said.

"Everything we see says this is still coming," Mayfield said.

State officials urged residents in the lower half of the state to make good use of the extra time.

"Floridians should take advantage of the slow pace and stock up and prepare," said Gov. Jeb Bush.

For the most part, residents of the southwest coast, the Keys and Miami-Dade and Broward counties did just that. They went about their business Friday but found themselves preoccupied with Wilma.

"The state bird for Florida should be changed to a chainsaw," said Hallie Hendler, property manager of the Jockey Club III condominium in northeast Miami-Dade.

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(Merzer, Robles and Long report for The Miami Herald. Merzer and Robles reported from Miami, Long from Vero Beach. Miami Herald reporters Jennifer Babson in Key West, Helen Berggren and Larry Lebowitz in Miami and Mary Ellen Klas in Tallahassee, and Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Susana Hayward in Merida, Mexico, contributed.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WILMA

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051021 Hurricanes Florida, 20041021 Hurricanes 2005, 20051021 Hurricane Wilma

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