CANCUN, Mexico – Tourists camped out at the airport in hopes of grabbing a precious seat on flights leaving Mexico's hurricane-ravaged Caribbean coast, and some residents of Cancun's poorer neighborhoods armed themselves with machetes and erected barricades to ward off looters.
Authorities reported Hurricane Wilma (search) caused "significant damage" to coral reefs and damaged so many trees on the Yucatan peninsula that the downed timber could fuel forest fires in the upcoming dry season.
Despite the presence of thousands of soldiers, federal and local police, many neighborhoods in Cancun (search) were guarded by residents manning improvised barricades throughout the night, with small fires fueled by downed branches to provide light.
Even though 6,272 more tourists were flown out of Cancun on Wednesday, thousands more still remained, forming long lines outside airports and tour offices in Cancun and the inland city of Merida on Wednesday.
Nicole Samaha, owner of the MedioMundo Hotel in Merida, said some tourists had been sleeping on the lawn near the city's airport — yet evacuees still called Merida a huge improvement over Cancun.
"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.
In previous days, thousands of tourists had been bused from Cancun to Merida, but those trips were halted Wednesday because the airport was full and flights were booked for a week.
Local media reported one small victory: the last foreign tourists had finally been extracted from the island of Cozumel (search), south of Cancun on Mexico's Caribbean coast.
Cozumel — hit directly by Wilma — suffered "significant damage" to its famous coral reefs, the Environment Department said in a report.
Over a million acres of forests were also damaged by Wilma. "That figure is worrisome, given that the fallen branches represent potential fuel for fires," the report said.
While most of the flooding had receded and electricity was slowly returning, frustrated visitors who had gone a week without showering said they were beginning to relate to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
"Now I know how those people in New Orleans felt," said Angela Benites, 48, of Mexico City. "Several days of desperation is no way to live."
Cancun's half-million people struggled to clean up their flooded and wind-smashed homes and workplaces, while officials set up makeshift airline counters at a high school where representatives worked to evacuate tourists. Some leapt and wept for joy when told they could leave.
Those on chartered tours were leaving first, with the help of travel agents.
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.
Wilma caused serious damage to the airport when it hit on Friday and Saturday, the company that operates the Cancun airport, Grupo Aeroportuario del Sureste, said Wednesday.
With navigational aids blown away, pilots must operate by sight and by instruments within their planes, slowing the pace of operations and ruling out flights in bad weather or darkness.
Workmen with bulldozers and hammers were clearing away debris in the hotel zone. Some restaurants and supermarkets were opening. And 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 would-be evacuees. "We don't know what we're waiting for. We're just hopeful that we'll be out of here by the weekend."