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NEWS

Mexican insurance companies said on Thursday that Hurricane Wilma was likely to be the country's most costly disaster ever, and President Vicente Fox announced a US18.5 million program to restore Caribbean beaches ravaged by Hurricane Wilma.

In a visit to Cancun, Fox bid farewell to departing tourists with the words "see you again soon," and then turned his attention to the suffering local population, asking hotel owners not to lay off Cancun residents who rely on tourism for their livelihood.

"I'm asking you for zero unemployment," Fox said in a meeting with hotel operators. "I'm asking you not to fire anyone, to keep them in their regular positions or use them in rebuilding."

The Mexican insurance association said on Thursday that Wilma is expected to have caused more insured damage than 1988's Hurricane Gilbert, which resulted in payments of US1.2 billion to policy holders on the Yucatan peninsula.

"Obviously, Wilma is possibly the biggest catastrophe we've ever had in the Mexican insurance sector," said Rolando Vega, the association's president.

The resort area's islands famous for their diving and snorkeling bore the brunt of the storm, with extensive damage to reefs and residents complaining of water shortages.

A U.S. cruise ship was sent Thursday to the island of Cozumel to deliver aid and pick up any remaining stranded Americans, but most tourists appeared to have left the islands. Even in Cancun, lines at makeshift airline ticket counters had nearly vanished, and there were only a few visitors enjoying the sun before heading home.

Fox said that about US500 million in rebuilding loans would be available from various sources private banks and international financing organizations as well as tax breaks for local businesses.

He said Mexico plans to have 80 percent of the resort area up and running by Dec. 15, and the U.S. Embassy announced an extra US300,000 in aid for Wilma's victims.

"The recent natural disasters that have devastated parts of the United States and Mexico strengthened the cooperation and determination of our countries and governments to work together," said U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza.

Yet, despite the signs of progress, many residents were left behind. On Isla Mujeres, people complained of limited access to drinking water and homes destroyed by high winds, waves and flooding.



ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION

The Environmental Secretariat said Hurricane Wilma ripped into coral reefs and damaged more than 1 million acres (500,000 hectares) of trees on the Yucatan peninsula, creating fuel for possible forest fires in the upcoming dry season.

On Isla Mujeres, popular for its reef and laid-back style, angry surf dragged the public beach's sand across much of the island, blocking streets and filling homes and businesses with the snowy white grains.

On Thursday, sailors shoveled the sand into 6-feet-tall (2meter-high) piles, 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.

In a sign that the tourism industry that sustains the island will 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 a bit of drinking water brought in daily by ferries. Helicopters fly in more aid, taking off from Cancun's bullring.

Fishermen on Isla Mujeres said the storm scared away most of the fish, Peering into the water, a shallow reef just offshore was abandoned by sea life.

"The people here fish," said fisherman José Sánchez, 61. "But now there aren't fish, so we don't do anything."

The storm left Marielle Hendriksen, a Netherlands native who has lived on the island for nearly five years, out of work. Her dive shop has closed for several months 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.

Hendriksen was one of the few on the island who said they had received handouts of rice, beans and sugar.



GETTING HUNGRY

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 is filled to the ceiling with bottled water and some food, but residents say local officials aren'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 to feed her three children.

Flor María Chávez, 52, got up before dawn to wait in line 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 Chávez, 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.

Martín 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."

Regular ferry service had resumed to all of the area's islands, which spent the first few days after the storm isolated and with some low-lying neighborhoods under water.

On Cozumel, a larger island popular with cruise ships and divers, hundreds of tourists had been stranded for days, but most had been evacuated by Thursday.

There were few reports of looting on the islands unlike in Cancun, where residents cleaned out stores Sunday after the storm passed.

Many residents on the mainland were still fearful of looting, especially in Cancun's poor neighborhoods. Some were arming themselves with machetes and building fires with debris at night for light to keep thieves away.

 

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