CANCUN, Mexico – Mexico's economy took a big blow from Hurricane Wilma (search), with the palatial hotels at the heart of its tourism industry left in ruins and shopping centers emptied by looters.
Soldiers and federal police took to Cancun's streets Monday to prevent further theft, and President Vicente Fox (search) announced plans to start evacuating 30,000 frazzled tourists as he worked to restore the image of a carefree Caribbean beach paradise.
Fox told AP Television News while touring Cancun that officials hoped to start busing some tourists 170 miles across the Yucatan Peninsula (search) to the airport in Merida later Monday. He said he hoped Cancun's airport could resume operations Tuesday so evacuations could move quicker.
There was no estimate on damage, but Fox told the Televisa network there should be $2.7 billion in aid from various levels of government, insurers and loans to help reconstruction. Many of Cancun's 500,000 residents lost nearly everything in flooded or destroyed homes.
Electricity was reported out in much of the city, and the president estimated it would take a week to restore power. He said officials were trying to bring in more portable generators.
Fox expressed concern that one of Mexico's biggest moneymakers — the Caribbean coastal resorts — would not fully recover for at least two months. The booming string of hotels anchored by Cancun produce almost half of the country's $11 billion in yearly foreign tourism revenue.
"We're approaching the full tourist season. So speed is fundamental," Fox said.
Ana Patricia Morales, vice president of the Cancun Hotels Association, said full recovery could take until Easter week. She told The Associated Press that all the group's 110 hotels had sustained damage, ranging from broken windows to structural problems.
Fox said only six people were known dead, adding to 13 who died last week when Wilma hit Jamaica (search) and Haiti (search). In Belize, south of Yucatan, police said they were searching for a dive boat that disappeared over the weekend with several people aboard.
Lingering over the region for two days, the hurricane battered Cancun's line of luxury hotels into an expensive breakwater. Lobbies were heaped with twisted metal, broken marble and shattered glass. The beachfront was gone from some hotels, leaving their foundations exposed.
As the rains stopped Sunday, stunned Mexicans watched television images of looters rushing through stores like swarms of ants, carrying out everything from TV sets, clothes and beer, to trucks, cars and even pizza delivery motorcycles.
Whole blocks of stores were looted, and many stores were bare by Monday. Police said about 200 people had been arrested.
Most tourists were still sheltering in cockroach-infested classrooms reeking of sweat and mildew. While a generator growled at an elementary school housing more than 1,000 evacuees, no lights were working. Hand-scrawled paper signs urged civility: "Respect each other."
Shouting erupted when soldiers demanded tourists stop trying to recharge cellular phones with the generator. Outside, people lined up 15 deep at any pay phone found to be working.
Some tourists said they had been promised a flight out Tuesday. But Jeremy Dean of Chattanooga, Tenn., expressed skepticism.
"Everybody keeps saying tomorrow, tomorrow. After about Friday, we stopped listening to that," he said.
Some expressed irritation the U.S. government had not done more.
"I feel the Mexican government is helping here to an extent, doing the best they can," said KeVen Riley, town finance administrator for Paw Paw, Mich. "But the U.S. has done nothing. Where is our government? They are only preparing for Florida; they forgot about us."
A few people burst into tears when U.S. consular officer Lisa Vickers arrived later and said evacuation is largely up to tour operators. She urged people to stay with their tour groups.
Fox warned businesses Monday against price gouging or firing workers.
"Nobody will be unemployed. Everybody is going to work for the region to get ahead. The government and hotels are going to respect that commitment," he told rescue workers.