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Tourists stream out of hurricane-hit Cancun

Thousands of tourists streamed out of the Caribbean resort city of Cancun after it was pounded by Hurricane Wilma, but thousands more remained stranded Wednesday.
Foreign tourists arrive at Cancun 's international air port as they prepare to fly out of the Mexican Caribbean resort
Foreign tourists arrive at Cancun 's international airport on Tuesday as they prepare to fly out of the Mexican resort city after Hurricane Wilma.Henry Romero / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

By bus and charter flights, thousands of tourists streamed out of this Caribbean resort city that was pounded by Hurricane Wilma, but thousands more remained stranded Wednesday.

Clyde Wiseman, a petrochemical supervisor from Godfrey, Ill., said he didn’t know when he would be able to leave, but “I’m happy to be among the living.”

“But to the travel agents, the airlines, I want to say, ’I don’t want to be among the forgotten.”’

Tourism officials estimated that about 6,000 people flew out of Cancun airport Tuesday, five days after Wilma roared through, while thousands more were bused to planes in Merida, a 170-mile trip over partly flooded roads with heavy traffic.

“Enough’s enough,” Paul Bracey, 45, of Wales, said at a hotel serving as a shelter in downtown Cancun as he waited for a bus to Merida late Tuesday night. “We’re still stranded, and have been told six days of lies.”

Hurricane struck heart of tourism industry
Officials said about 22,000 foreign tourists remained in the area Tuesday afternoon, down from almost 40,000 during the storm that lashed the coast Friday and Saturday, wiping out the heart of Mexico’s $11 billion foreign tourism industry. There was still no solid monetary estimate of the damage caused by Wilma.

Eric and Michelle Joseph, honeymooners form San Jose, Calif., said a river of human waste had run through hallways at the hotel where 1,200 tourists were sheltered during the storm.

“Our whole family is calling senators, congressman and Gov. Schwarzenegger,” said Eric Joseph, 26. “My Cingular (cellular phone) bill is probably going to be $3,000.”

The couple had scheduled flights out every day this week, but wasn’t hopeful of getting home until Saturday.

Aurelio Fernandez 35, of Asturias, Spain, said he planned to fly back on a charter flight from Merida on Wednesday, leaving behind a suitcase at a Cancun airport locker.

“I’m leaving, but my bag isn’t,” Fernandez, said at a hotel, where he had just had his first shower in five days. “It was the most refreshing of my life,” he said.

Col. Robert Martin, defense attache for the British embassy, said 8,000 British tourists were still in Cancun.

“There are 200 hotels and 150 shelters here,” Martin said. “It takes time to reach them all.”

'Nobody knows anything'
Confusion reigned.

Soldiers turned back a mile-long line of taxis, vans and buses before they could reach the badly damaged Cancun airport, allowing in only organized tour groups who were ferried directly to their planes.

Individual travelers were told to try back later, for fear they would overcrowd the airport.

“There’s no information. Nobody knows anything. And what they know changes every minute,” said Steve Toth, 41, of Crown Point, Ind., who was stranded along the highway to the airport with his wife and 2-year-old daughter.

Mixed messages
Even top officials sounded confused. President Vicente Fox said on Monday that six people had died. His spokesman, Ruben Aguilar, announced on Tuesday that the death toll was four. Some state officials earlier suggested a toll of seven. There was no explanation for the differences.

The storm also killed at least five in Florida, 12 in Haiti and one in Jamaica.

Ferries carried people between the mainland and the hurricane-raked resort islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres, Fox’s office said. The U.S. Embassy said 900 Americans were believed to be on Cozumel.

About 3,200 Americans had already been bused from Cancun to Merida, where they were being flown to the United States. But many suggested even swifter action was needed. Pizzeria owner Bob Gleason of Napa, Calif., suggested government-organized cruise ships.

“They could put us all on board and get us out of Mexican territory,” he said. “We need some way to get out of here.”