CANCUN, (Mexico), Oct 22 (AFP): Sea water rushed into the Mexican resort city of Cancun early Saturday as Hurricane Wilma whipped up a massive storm surge and unleashed heavy rain and driving winds over a resort area known for its picturesque beaches.
Although it weakened in the early hours and was downgraded to a category three storm, Wilma packed enough punch to fell trees and tear off roofs, as tens of thousands of tourists and residents cowered in emergency shelters.
"The water is already reaching the third floor of some hotels," said Humberto Hernandez Uzon, a spokesman for the national weather service. "And the bad weather will continue for another 12 hours."
Quintana Roo state governor Felix Gonzalez Canto said the storm had affected the whole infrastructure of the region.
The eye of the 12th hurricane of the Atlantic season was expected to remain over the peninsula on Saturday before heading slowly toward the Florida coast in the southeastern United States.
At 0900 GMT, the US National Hurricane Center said the eye of the storm remained stationary 45 kilometers (25 miles) southwest of Cancun, right over the resort of Playa del Carmen.
After coming ashore as a category four hurricane, Wilma now delivered sustained winds of 205 kilometers (125 miles) an hour, the US National Hurricane Center said.
"Some additional weakening is expected today while Wilma is over land," the center said in its advisory, predicting that the hurricane would gradually begin to turn north, toward the US state of Florida, later in the day.
The storm has already claimed its first victims. Six people were injured in a fire in Playa del Carmen Friday, when strong winds caused a gas tank to fall and ignite, authorities said.
A state of emergency was declared in 55 districts of Yucatan.
To the east, a hurricane watch was in effect in the western provinces of Cuba, prompting the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people.
The NHC said the storm was expected to dump 25 to 50 centimeters (10 to 20 inches) of rain on western Cuba and Mexico's Yucatan peninsula through Sunday. In some isolated cases, up to one meter (40 inches) could fall.
In Cuba's western province of Pinar del Rio, authorities said 195,600 had been evacuated as weather experts struggled to anticipate when and where the erratic, lumbering Wilma would strike next.
"It's a system that moves very slowly, and will create tension for us for many days. It will be a long battle," said Jose Rubiera at the Meteorological Institute of Cuba.
Packed buses and airplanes had raced tens of thousands of tourists away from Mexico's Caribbean resorts Thursday amid frenzied last-minute efforts to escape the hurricane.
More than 50,000 people have been evacuated from the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan, said federal civil defense official Carmen Segura. Thousands more were taking shelter in schools and gymnasiums to ride out the storm.
"We only brought the mattresses. The hotel sent over its staff to tend to the guests and provide them with free food and drinks," Victor Garcia, the local official in charge of a makeshift shelter, told AFP.
About 30,000 tourists at other Yucatan resorts were also housed in shelters, a municipal official said.
Cancun's international airport suspended operations Thursday and remained closed Saturday.
Earlier predictions had the storm hitting Florida on Friday or Saturday but a revised forecast said it could strike on Monday.
The state's governor, Jeb Bush, a brother of US President George W. Bush, had activated the National Guard while the US Coast Guard flew along the coast looking for mariners in potential danger.
Wilma is the 12th hurricane of the Atlantic season, the largest number of hurricanes recorded since 1969.