Published October 22, 2005
CANCUN, Mexico – Hurricane Wilma (search), lumbering but deadly and coming on the heels of several disastrous storms, officially made landfall late Friday afternoon.
The center of the storm's eye arrived at the Mexican island of Cozumel at 4:30 p.m. EDT, the National Hurricane Center (search) in Miami said. Florida officials and residents were bracing for Wilma's arrival, expected on Monday.
The Category 4 storm killed 13 people in Haiti and Jamaica. The Cuban government evacuated nearly 370,000 people, and up to 3 feet of rain was expected in some parts of the island nation.
The storm was expected to hover over the Yucatan Peninsula for two more days while lashing at Cuba, before making its way toward the Sunshine State.
In Mexico on Friday, Wilma was laying waste to some of that country's prized resort towns. The storm's winds and surges popped out windows and clawed at beachfront hotels.
Meanwhile, Florida officials and residents were bracing for the storm's arrival. Evacuation orders were issued for the west coast town of Naples and a nearby island. Florida Keys residents also were asked to start leaving.
At 5 p.m. EDT, Wilma's winds were at 140 mph — down slightly from 145 mph a few hours earlier — as the storm made landfall on Cozumel, the hurricane center said. The hurricane was about 430 miles southwest of Key West, Fla., and was moving northwest at about 5 mph.
"It's going to be a long couple of days here for the Yucatan Peninsula," hurricane center director Max Mayfield said.
No injuries were reported as the hurricane moved in. Cancun Red Cross director Ricardo Portugal said the biggest problem so far had been "nervous crises," and 11 pregnant women were ferried to hospitals because of worries the storm had induced labor.
Earlier on Friday, the acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (search) sought to assure Floridians they were in good hands.
"So far [evacuations] have gone very well. What I've seen so far is a little bit of heavy traffic but nothing excessive — no one is out of fuel, things seem to be going smoothly," R. David Paulison (search) said Friday afternoon.
Paulison said FEMA had overseen the transport of food, water and ice at two military bases close to where Hurricane Wilma (search ) is expected to make landfall. Residents were urged to be on the alert for mandatory evacuation orders, and told those already in evacuation zones to leave their homes and find shelter.
Paulison also asked residents to have a three-day supply of food and water on hand, and to collect prescriptions and important identification documents in case they were forced to leave their homes. He stressed that evacuation orders and advisories would come from local officials, not FEMA.
"Pay attention to the evacuation managers — they're the ones to listen to, not those in Washington," he said.
Paulison told reporters that nine disaster response teams were ready to go in Florida, and nine more were on alert. More than 300 satellite phones had been sent to Florida authorities — a response to the crippling lack of communication in Louisiana following Katrina.
"There was not good situational awareness [during Katrina]. We're not going to let that happen again in this storm," Paulison vowed.
Coast Guard cutters and aircraft were on hand, Paulison said, and the Department of Health and Human Services had supplied a thousand beds for evacuees, with a thousand more on standby.
As far as preparations for inevitable power outs in hard-hit areas, the Department of Transportation was supplying mobile power units to the state, and Paulison said the state was at 96 percent capacity on fuel reserves.
Though Wilma was coming on the heels of a particularly nasty hurricane season in the South, Paulison said his agency was ready for the worst.
"I know we're tired of hurricanes," Paulison said. "Our people are tired, they've been working for the last several months pretty much seven days a week."
But with areas hit by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in recovery, Paulison added, disaster-response workers were rested and ready to go.
"If you talk to them they're ready to take on this next task. We're not going to take any chances. We're ready for a Category 5 storm," he said.
Americans saw a different FEMA than the one that was derided as ineffectual and incompetent during Hurricane Katrina (search) in September. The agency's performance led to the ouster of then-director Michael Brown, and government investigations were called for.
"It's quite clear the professionals are back in charge of FEMA," said FOX News contributor Amb. Marc Ginsberg. "The situation in Florida will hopefully be remarkably different."
Emergency officials have been telling residents of the Florida Keys to leave for the past two days. NHC's Mayfield said the storm "has the potential to do catastrophic damage."
The mandatory mainland order, effective at noon Friday, covered part of the Gulf Coast town of Naples and the nearby snowbird enclave of Marco Island (search).
The number of people affected was not immediately clear, but many were already complying, Collier County emergency management spokeswoman Jaime Sarbaugh said.
"Your life is much more important than your things," she said.
Miami-Dade County and Homestead was bracing for major damage by distributing sandbags to Homestead residents and businesses, even though it wasn't clear how much the region would be affected by the monster storm.
Mexican officials said about 20,000 tourists were at shelters and hotels on the mainland south of Cancun, and an estimated 10,000-12,000 were in Cancun itself.
Juan Luis Flores, an emergency services official in Quintana Roo state, said about 65,000 people were evacuated. Mexico's civil defense chief, Carmen Segura, assured people "their families are protected as they should be."
But instead of luxury hotel suites over a turquoise sea, many tourists found themselves sleeping on the floors of hotel ballrooms, schools and gymnasiums reeking of sweat because there was no power or air conditioning.
Scott and Jamie Stout of Willisville, Ill., were spending their honeymoon on a Cancun basketball court with a leaky roof.
"After one more day of this, I believe people will start getting cranky," said Scott Stout, 26. "Things could get messy."
The Stouts, at least, had food and coffee. Devon Anderson, 21, of Sacramento, Calif., was sharing 10 rooms at a rundown Cozumel school with 200 other Americans.
"We are all sleeping on the floor," Anderson said. "There's no food, no water."
Power was cut early Friday to most parts of Cancun — a standard safety precaution — and winds blasted waves across streets flooded 3 feet deep in some places, about 35 miles north of Cozumel.
"God protect us!" ran the headline Friday in a local newspaper, Quequi.
Forecasters said the storm could dump as much as 40 inches of rain over isolated, mountainous parts of western Cuba and about half that in some other parts of Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula.
It could strengthen to a Category 5 hurricane before hitting land, forecasters said. Its slow progress delayed its expected arrival in Florida until Monday, but fueled fears that it would have more time to dump rain and pummel the low-lying Mayan Riviera, possibly causing major damage.
Wilma will likely linger over the Yucatan for a few days, Mayfield said Friday.
"If it stays over the Yucatan for any significant length of time and much of the circulation is over land ... that would obviously be terrible news for Mexico," Mayfield said at a news conference. "For the United States' interests, it means that we'll have a weaker hurricane coming out into the Gulf of Mexico and it will be slower in getting here."
The hurricane's eye is so large it might take hours to pass over land, leading to fears that confused residents might leave shelters in the calm of the middle of the storm.
At the beachside Playa Azul hotel on Cozumel's north end, manager Martha Nieto said "the waves are getting very high."
"We wish it was over. The waiting drives you to desperation," Nieto said by telephone.
Wilma briefly strengthened to Category 5 and became the most intense hurricane recorded in the Atlantic Ocean with 882 millibars of pressure, breaking the record low of 888 set by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Lower pressure brings faster winds.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.