CANCUN, Mexico - Desperate tourists jockeyed for flights out of Cancun on Thursday as officials hauled thousands of visitors from luxury hotels to emergency shelters ahead of Hurricane Wilma, which forecasters said was growing stronger. Cuba evacuated more than 200,000 people.
The hurricane, which killed at least 13 people in the Caribbean, was expected to hit Cancun and sideswipe Cuba early Friday. Forecasters said it would then swing around to the northeast and charge Sunday at hurricane-weary Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency.
Briefly the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record, Wilma remained a dangerous Category 4 hurricane and was gaining strength. Its 240 150 mph winds made it more powerful than Hurricane Katrina at the time it plowed into the U.S. Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, killing more than 1,200 people.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm's wobbly center was roughly 135 miles southeast of Cozumel, a popular vacation island where the storm was likely to hit first before heading to Cancun. While many were evacuated from the island, a few had stayed.
"This is getting very powerful, very threatening," Mexican President Vicente Fox said. Hundreds of schools in the Yucatan peninsula were ordered closed Thursday and Friday, and many were turned into shelters.
The Cancun airport was packed Thursday. Lines of hundreds waiting for flights wound past queues of dozens seeking rental cars, taxis or automatic teller machines.
Some airlines had already started canceling flights by midday.
A canceled U.S. Airways flight to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was sending Matt Williams and his friend Jeff Davidson, both of Westfield, N.J., back to their hotel in Playa del Carmen south of Cancun. There, 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.
Increasingly high winds bent palm trees and strong waves gobbled Cancun's white-sand beaches. Officials loaded tourists onto buses after rousting them out of a string of luxury hotels lining the precarious strip between the Caribbean and the Nichupte Lagoon. By Thursday afternoon, the normally busy tourist zone was deserted.
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."
Mayor Francisco Antonio Alor said 20,000 tourists remained in the city Thursday, down from 35,000 the day before. He said he hoped most would be able to fly out on charters, but about 270 shelters in the area were being readied for those who were stuck.
"It's important that the people understand they should leave for their own security," he said. "It is important that they understand the situation is very dangerous."
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 where she works, Maite Soberanis replied: "Not for anything. We're in the center of the island. We're protected. We are very secure."
In Cuba, whose tip is just 220 130 miles east of Cancun, civil defense officials said 220,000 people had been evacuated by midday Thursday, most from low-lying areas in the island's west.
Another 14,500 students at boarding schools in rural Havana Province surrounding the nation's capital were sent home to their families.
"We do what is necessary to prevent any problems," said Yahany Canoua, 6 months pregnant as she was waiting to board an evacuation bus in La Colma, a fishing village on Cuba's southwestern coast. Evacuees crowded the buses with children, pet dogs and plastic bags of food.
With Florida the following target, Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency.
National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said Wilma's slowing pace could drag the storm down to a Category 3 or less before it hits Florida's southwest coast Sunday.
Officials on Wednesday began clearing tourists out of the exposed Florida Keys, but postponed evacuation of residents until at least Friday.
Across Florida's southwest coast, people put up shutters, bought canned goods and bottled water and waited in ever-growing lines at gas stations.
Starting with its early stages as a tropical depression over the weekend, Wilma has caused floods and landslides that killed at least 12 people in Haiti and one in Jamaica, according to officials there.
Honduras, raked by the storm's outer bands on Wednesday, escaped with no reports of significant damage, according to Juan Jose Reyes, spokesman for the national emergency committee.
In Belize, a nation south of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, officials canceled cruise ship visits and tourists were evacuated from islands offshore.
A few miles south of Cancun in Playa del Carmen, executives at the Occidental Grand Flamenco Xcaret gathered customers on Wednesday evening to warn that they might have to be moved to a shelter at the hotel convention center.
Tourists, many clutching drinks and still wearing swimming trunks or suits, groaned audibly when they were told that bars would be closed and smoking banned in the shelters.