CANCUN, Mexico – Tourists packed Cancun's airport and shuttled from luxury hotels to spartan emergency shelters Thursday, desperately trying to escape Hurricane Wilma as its outer bands battered the resort's white-sand beaches. Cuba evacuated more than 200,000 people.
Wilma, a Category 4 (search) storm with winds of 150 mph, churned toward the Yucatan peninsula and south Florida after brushing by Haiti and Jamaica, where its winds and rains killed at least 13 people.
Forecasters said late Thursday that the storm was expected to make a direct hit on the vacation isle of Cozumel Friday, then slam Cancun and sideswipe Cuba.
"As it hits the Yucatan peninsula, it has the potential to do catastrophic damage," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Forecasters predicted it would swing northeast around Cuba and charge Sunday at hurricane-weary Florida. Gov. Jeb Bush (search) declared a state of emergency, after the state got caught in the westerlies, the strong wind current that generally blows toward the east.
Briefly the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record, Wilma was a potentially catastrophic Category 5 storm before weakening. Its 150 mph winds made it more powerful than Hurricane Katrina when it plowed into the Gulf Coast of the United States on Aug. 29, killing more than 1,200 people.
At 8 p.m. EDT, Wilma was about 120 miles southeast of Cozumel and about 460 miles southwest of Key West (search). It was heading northwest toward the Yucatan at near 5 mph with winds at about 150 mph.
Tropical storm-force winds and rains were already hitting Cozumel by Thursday night. Hundreds of schools in the Yucatan were ordered closed and many were turned into shelters. Airlines started canceling flights.
While hundreds were evacuated from Cozumel (search), Mexican officials said about a thousand tourists stayed on the island, mainly at hotel ballrooms being used as storm shelters. About 20,000 tourists remained at shelters and hotels on the mainland south of Cancun, and an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 in the city itself.
"The most important thing now is to protect lives, protect the lives of our children, of our grandparents," President Vicente Fox said in a broadcast address to the nation.
At the Cancun airport, hundreds of tourists waited for flights or sought rental cars, taxis or ATMs.
Matt Williams and Jeff Davidson of Westfield, N.J., were going back to their hotel in Playa del Carmen south of Cancun after their flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. was canceled. At the hotel, they faced a night in a ballroom-turned-emergency shelter.
"You see the lines. I don't want to stand there for two hours and then decide what to do," said Williams, 26.
Asked if Katrina was on his mind, he said: "You see that on TV, all that destruction. All you can do is hope that it doesn't happen here."
Increasingly high winds bent palm trees and strong waves pounded Cancun's beaches. Officials loaded tourists onto buses after rousting them from luxury hotels lining the strip between the Caribbean Sea and the Nichupte Lagoon.
Some, like 30-year-old Carlos Porta of Barcelona, Spain, were handed plastic bags with a pillow and blanket. "From a luxury hotel to a shelter. It makes you angry, but what can you do?" he said. "It's just bad luck."
Early Wednesday, Wilma became the most intense hurricane recorded in the Atlantic. The storm's 882 millibars of pressure broke the record low of 888 set by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. Lower pressure brings faster winds.
Quintana Roo state officials urged the evacuation of nearby islands, and ferries carried throngs to the mainland, but not all agreed to flee.
Asked by telephone if she was leaving Cozumel's Hotel Aguilar (search) where she works, Maite Soberanis replied: "Not for anything. We're in the center of the island. We're protected. We are very secure. We've lived through Gilbert here. We know what to do."
In Cuba, whose tip is 130 miles east of Cancun, civil defense officials said 220,000 people were evacuated by midday, most from low-lying areas in the island's west.
An additional 14,500 students at boarding schools outside Havana were sent home until after the storm.
"We do what is necessary to prevent any problems," said Yahany Canoua, who is six months pregnant and waited for a bus as part of a mandatory evacuation of La Coloma, a fishing village on the southwestern coast of Cuba.
Evacuees crowded the buses with children, dogs and bags of food. Some people moved televisions and refrigerators to safer ground.
In Florida, officials began clearing tourists out of the Keys but postponed the evacuation of residents. Across the state's southwest coast, people hammered in window shutters, bought canned goods and bottled water and waited in lines for gas.
Mayfield said Wilma's slowing pace could push the storm back to a Category 3 or less before hitting Florida on Sunday.
He said the storm also was expanding in size, with tropical storm-force winds extending 260 miles. "This has become a larger hurricane," he said.
Honduras, raked by the storm's outer bands Wednesday, escaped with no reports of significant damage, said national emergency committee spokesman Juan Jose Reyes.