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Tourists stream out of Cancun; cleanup expected to take months

CRISTOBAL COLON, Mexico—Hundreds of American tourists began streaming out of Cancun Monday, haggard, tired and frustrated after days with little food and water in the wake of Hurricane Wilma.

The sun shone brightly as caravans of cars and buses carried the tourists along the Yucatan's main highway, but those reaching this point 30 miles from the resort city recalled a journey that seemed interminable and nightmarish. Floodwaters near this point made the two highways into Cancun impassable for all but the tallest of vehicles.

Workers and Cancun residents trying to get into the city also were frustrated by the flooded highways and the hours-long lines of traffic. Many sat for hours in the heat and humidity, hoping to find out how their families and homes had fared.

Mexican soldiers and state police drove down the water-covered highways to rescue drivers whose cars had flooded. Even those vehicles that made it, including large buses, often broke down after the arduous drive through high water.

"I'm just so happy to be out of there," said Chris Draheim, a lighting and scenery producer from Hollywood, Calif., who spent the storm in an elementary school after being evacuated from the Hilton Hotel.

"The hotel was destroyed. The atrium blew away. It was scary," he said. "Imagine this hurricane hovered over us for a day and a half with walls of rain and 150 mph winds."

As many as 30,000 Americans and thousands of tourists from other countries were in Cancun when the storm made landfall at the nearby resort of island of Cozumel on Friday. For the next two days they endured the storm's wrath as it stalled over the Yucatan peninsula, whipping the area with high winds and driving rain.

Officials for the state of Quintana Roo, where Cancun is located, said at least three people died. A falling tree hit one and two others died from burns after a gas tank exploded. On Sunday, four decomposed bodies were found floating in floodwaters on Cozumel, but officials said they weren't sure if they had died from the storm.

Hotel officials reported widespread damage, and many of the major Cancun resorts announced they would be closed for months. The state tourism minister for Quintana Roo estimated the industry's losses at $800 million and said Cancun won't be operating until December.

Tourists said they were caught off guard by the storm's fury.

"We didn't understand how severe the situation was until Thursday, and by Friday we realized how dangerous it was," said Ursula Copulus, 28, a physical therapist from Austin, Texas, who'd gone to Playa del Carmen, north of Cancun, with her boyfriend to study Spanish. "Officials said we'd just get a little rain, but I called my family and they told me to get out."

Copulus and her boyfriend made it as far as Valladolid, the largest city northwest of Cancun. Like many others, they were uncertain how they would get back home.

Cancun's airport was closed. A 7 p.m. curfew was in effect, and police arrested 200 people for looting amid a shortage of food and other basics.

American Embassy officials said they had sent officials to Merida and Cancun to assist tourists.

Meanwhile, others were heading into Cancun to determine what would need to be done.

"The damage to our hotel was pretty bad, but there's no communication, no electricity, no nothing, so we're going to assess," said Tim Sylvester, vice president of engineering for the Ritz-Carlton hotels, as he waited in a two-mile line to get into Cancun.

Sylvester was carrying food, medicine and generators for the Ritz hotel staff of 30.

We're not even done repairing from Katrina in New Orleans," he said. "Now Cancun, and I just heard Wilma also hit us in Miami."

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

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

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