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
"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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
"We don't want a disaster,
but there are people considering looting the food inside" the senior center,
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.