Mexico’s Caribbean coastline took a beating from Hurricane Wilma, but the resort area’s islands — famous for their diving and snorkeling — bore the brunt of the storm, with extensive damage to reefs and white-sand beaches.
A U.S. cruise ship was sent Thursday to the island of Cozumel to deliver aid and pick up any remaining Americans, but most tourists appeared to have left the islands.
Thousands of residents were left behind, however, many with limited access to drinking water and homes destroyed by high winds, waves and flooding.
Mexico’s Environmental Department said Wilma ripped into coral reefs and damaged more than 1 million acres of trees on the Yucatan Peninsula, creating fuel for possible forest fires in the upcoming dry season.
On Isla Mujeres, known for its laid-back style, the surf dragged sand from the public beach across much of the island, blocking streets and filling homes and businesses with the snowy white grains.
Sailors shoveled the sand into 6-foot piles Thursday in an attempt to rescue one of the region’s greatest assets — brochures brag that the Mexican Caribbean’s sugar-white beaches don’t get hot in the sun.
No signs of rebuilding
In a sign that the tourism industry may be slow to recover, hotels were boarded up and there were no signs of reconstruction — unlike in Cancun, where bulldozers are already clearing debris.
Hundreds waited in line with plastic jugs, hoping to get drinking water brought in by ferries. Helicopters flew in more aid, taking off from Cancun’s bullring.
Fishermen on Isla Mujeres, north of Cozumel, said the storm scared away the fish. No sea life could be seen in the water near one shallow reef just offshore.
“The people here fish,” said Jose Sanchez, a 61-year-old fisherman. “But now there aren’t fish, so we don’t do anything.”
The storm put Marielle Hendriksen, a Netherlands native who has lived on the island for nearly five years, out of work. Her dive shop has closed until it can repair a dock that was blown away by Wilma’s wind and waves.
But she said she was happy to see officials recovering the beaches’ sand.
“It will take a lot of work and a lot of time, but some of the beaches can be recovered,” she said.
Residents awaiting food
Hendriksen was one of the few on the island who said they had received handouts of rice, beans and sugar. Many others complained they weren’t getting bottled water or food, and a group of about 30 people were planning a protest.
The island’s senior center was filled to the ceiling with bottled water and some food, but residents said local officials weren’t distributing it.
Vivian Aurora, 41, said she hadn’t received anything for days and only has a bit of rice, beans and dried fish for her three children.
Flor Maria Chavez, 52, got up before dawn to wait for the ferry to bring water.
“There isn’t any water until the ferry brings the jugs,” she said. “We don’t have anything to drink.”
Leticia Chavez, 34, who works for a tourism cooperative on the island, said people were getting frustrated. “We don’t want a disaster, but there are people considering looting the food inside” the senior center, she said.
Martin Godoy, who is in charge of distributing aid, said residents must be patient. “It’s a slow process,” he said. “I know the people are desperate.”
Many residents stayed on Isla Mujeres as the storm hit, ripping apart even cinderblock homes.
“I was a housewife,” said Guillermina Canul, 70. “But now I don’t have a house.”