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Wilma inflicts massive damage in Mexico as another storm forms

MERIDA, Mexico—One ferocious and relentless hurricane. One historic tropical storm. Three areas of intense concern.

Area one: Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Hurricane Wilma clobbered the tourist havens of Playa del Carmen, Cancun and Cozumel. Thousands of people trembled through a second day of misery as the powerful storm slowly crawled through the region.

Wilma all but stalled, repeatedly pounding high-rise hotels and other facilities in heavily developed tourist areas. In Cancun, the Caribbean flowed over the hotel zone, reached three stories high and merged with an inland lagoon. Hundreds of tourists had to be rescued from their refuge at a gymnasium after the roof blew away.

"It's a destructive hurricane, with major rainfall but also very high winds, powerful winds, destroying large areas of the region," Mexican President Vicente Fox said in his Saturday radio address. "But we're taking all the necessary measures. Please be calm. ... There's still much ahead of us."

A representative of Cancun General Hospital Saturday told the Mexican press that two people died from heart attacks and a 40-year-old man was killed when a tree fell on him as he stepped outside his house. Seven other people were seriously injured when a gas tank exploded in Playa del Carmen.

Felix Gonzalez Cantu, the governor of Quintana Roo state, said that schools, hospitals, hotels and highways were substantially damaged. He called it "a level of destruction without precedent."

There was particular concern for the residents of Cozumel, an island hammered by the storm, where only half of the 150,000 people heeded evacuation orders.

Area two: South Florida. Forecasters predicted that Wilma—which struck the Yucatan Friday as a Category 4 storm—would slice through Florida as a Category 2 hurricane, with 105 mph winds.

Wilma's timing, intensity and exact path remained uncertain, but the Saturday afternoon forecast suggested that its core would reach Florida's southwest coast on Monday morning. Hurricane watches covered the Florida Keys, the state's East Coast from south of Miami to Titusville and the Gulf Coast all the way north to Bradenton.

At the entrance to Key West, this message flashed on a hotel billboard: "Go Home Wilma, Fred is Waiting for You."

Officials urged everyone in South Florida to shutter their homes Sunday morning.

Residents of the Keys and Sanibel, Captiva and other barrier islands along southwest Florida were ordered to flee. Experts warned that tornadoes could swarm across the southern half of the state.

"The recipe is there for increased tornado threats," said Mike Stone, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management. "Folks really need to watch that."

Area three: Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Unbelievably, Tropical Storm Alpha—the 22nd named storm of this record-breaking season—developed in the Caribbean.

Alpha broke the Atlantic hurricane season activity record set in 1933 and marked the first time that forecasters have run out of names and had to resort to the Greek alphabet for additional names.

"It's mind-boggling ...," said David Nolan, a University of Miami meteorology professor. "We're now in the same state of shock—or exasperation—as anyone."

Said Ben Nelson, the Florida state meteorologist: "We never thought we would ever, in our wildest season, go all the way down the list."

Alpha was expected to drop torrents of rain over Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos islands, then turn out to sea and not threaten the U.S. mainland.

With most of the attention still focused on Wilma, emergency managers advised South Floridians to complete their preparations on Saturday.

"The time of preparing is rapidly moving into the time of action," said Craig Fugate, the state emergency management director. "This is going to be a very large storm."

Its forward speed at that point: an impressive 27 mph. That should limit the danger of widespread flooding because Wilma will be moving so quickly that it may not have time to dump abundant rain on any single place.

But its wind field was expected to expand, covering an enormous area, and forecasters urged Florida residents not to focus on the skinny black line that runs through the center of the cone of probability.

In the Florida Keys, officials ordered a phased mandatory evacuation of all residents. The Key West airport closed. The Navy told more than 8,000 military personnel, federal workers and dependents to leave immediately for Orlando.

Forecasters warned that a 5- to 8-foot storm surge—the dome of seawater that accompanies a hurricane ashore—could wash over U.S. Highway 1 early Monday. That would sever the only highway link connecting the chain of islands.

Along the southwest coast, about 70,000 people were subject to evacuation orders in Naples and the rest of Collier County. Mandatory evacuations began in Sanibel, Captiva, Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Beach, affecting an estimated 12,000 people.

Most restaurants and shops in Naples' historic, upscale downtown were boarded up on Saturday, and a handful of people walked the streets through hot, muggy, overcast pre-hurricane weather.

Some people said they were worried about storm surge, but wouldn't evacuate if Wilma proved to be a low category hurricane.

"We're not taking it lightly at all," said Charlie O'Bannon, 52, sipping a Budweiser on Naples' fishing pier. "But we think we can handle anything below a Category 4."

That could prove to be a mistake. Wilma already has shown itself to be capricious and capable of enormous destruction, and forecasters said it soon would start moving away from Mexico. Then, it will catch a fast ride aboard a cold front heading toward it—and toward Florida.

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(Merzer and Robles of The Miami Herald reported from Miami; Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Susana Haywood reported from Merida, Mexico. Miami Herald staff writers Jennifer Babson, Peter Bailey, Cara Buckley, Marc Caputo, Christina Hoag and Phil Long contributed to this report.)

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

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051022 Hurricane Wilma

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