CANCUN, Mexico – Thousands of desperate tourists stranded by Hurricane Wilma (search) besieged airports and tour offices Wednesday as officials faced the challenge of evacuating 22,000 visitors with only 6,000 airline seats available out of Cancun (search).
While most of the flooding had receded and electricity was slowly returning, frustrated tourists who had gone nearly a week without showering said they could relate to those who survived Hurricane Katrina (search).
"Now I know how those people in New Orleans felt," said Angela Benites, 48, of Mexico City (search). "Several days of desperation is no way to live."
As Cancun's half-million people struggled to clean up their flooded and wind-smashed homes and workplaces, crowds of tourists surrounded airline offices. Some leapt and wept for joy when told they could leave.
Benites was one of the few to be handed a coveted boarding pass at the Mexicana ticket office. "You feel as if your soul has returned to your body," she said after waiting in line since 4:30 a.m.
Still waiting was Beverly Gerg, 33, a university researcher from Canada's Prince Edward Island.
"I'm out of money, and if I can't get out today, I have nowhere to stay tonight," said Gerg, who went to the airport at 5 a.m. only to be sent back downtown to the Mexicana office for the boarding pass needed to even enter the airport premises.
"I don't understand why they don't get more flights going."
Officials set up makeshift airline counters at a high school where representatives worked to evacuate those left. Tourists on chartered tours were leaving first, with the help of travel agents.
Visitors who arranged vacations on their own were largely without resources, and a group of about 600 at a hotel shelter were calling themselves "The Lost Ones," said Wisconsin tourist Terra Junk.
"They've been grouping together, and doing all they can as a large group, so they aren't ignored," the 21-year-old honeymooner said. She was booked on a charter flight to Chicago.
U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Judith Bryan said officials were focusing on tour groups now because it was an easy way to evacuate a large number of people. But she stressed that all would be evacuated. "We are still here, doing as much as we can," she said.
Wilma caused serious damage to the airport when it hit on Friday and then ground slowly across the area Saturday, said the company that operates the Cancun airport, Grupo Aeroportuario del Sureste.
With navigational aids blown away, pilots must operate largely by sight and by instruments in their planes, slowing the pace of operations and ruling out flights in bad weather or darkness.
The company said about 6,000 passengers should be able to leave Wednesday.
Thousands had been bused to Merida on the other side of the Yucatan Peninsula (search), but those trips were halted Wednesday because the airport was full and flights were booked for a week, Bryan said. Hotel rooms were also scarce, and tourists were sleeping on the airport's lawn, waiting for flights.
Nicole Samaha, the owner of MedioMundo Hotel, said her hotel had been full of evacuees trying to get flights home.
"Some people came in (to the hotel) and started to cry because they couldn't believe they found a place that was clean and had running water," Samaha said.
There were a few flights Wednesday from Cozumel (search), where about 650 Americans were still trapped, according to the U.S. State Department. It said a Royal Caribbean cruise ship delivering supplies would carry all remaining Americans to Ft. Lauderdale on Thursday.
Presidential spokesman Ruben Aguilar said 18,000 of the tourists trapped by the hurricane had left the Caribbean resort strip and 22,000 remained early Wednesday.
Aguilar said 25 percent of Cancun and 28 percent of nearby Playa del Carmen had electricity, bringing light and water to some parts of the cities and letting many take their first showers since the hurricane struck.
Workmen with bulldozers and hammers were clearing debris in the hotel zone. Some restaurants and supermarkets were opening. And ever-resourceful souvenir vendors were hawking "I Survived Wilma" T-shirts to the hundreds of people lined up in buses and vans at a military checkpoint on the road to the Cancun airport.
"I really don't know what we're doing out here," said Paul Hiemke, 26, of Dallas, who had been on a honeymoon with his wife Jennifer and was standing by the airport road with scores of other evacuees.
"We don't know what we're waiting for. We're just hopeful that we'll be out of here by the weekend."