Tourists Stranded In Mexico After Hurricane

CANCUN, Mexico (AP) -- Thousands of desperate tourists stranded for six days by Hurricane Wilma besieged airports and tour offices on Wednesday as officials faced evacuating 22,000 visitors with only 6,000 airline seats out of Cancun a day.

While most of the flooding had receded and electricity was slowly returning, frustrated visitors who had gone a week without showering said they were beginning to relate to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"Now I know how those people in New Orleans felt," said Angela Benites, 48, of Mexico City. "Several days of desperation is no way to live."

As Cancun's half-million people struggled to clean up their flooded and wind-smashed homes and workplaces, frustrated tourists surrounded airline offices. Some leapt and wept for joy when told they could leave.

Benites was one of the few to be handed a boarding pass at the Mexicana ticket office.

"You feel as if your soul has returned to your body," she said after waiting in line since 4:30 a.m.

Still waiting was Beverly Gerg, 33, a university researcher from Charlottetown on Canada's Prince Edward Island.

"I'm out of money, and if I can't get out today, I have nowhere to stay tonight," said Gerg, who had gone to the airport at 5 a.m., only to be sent back downtown to the Mexicana office for the boarding pass demanded even to enter the airport premises.

"I don't understand why they don't get more flights going."

Wilma caused serious damage to the airport when it hit on Friday and then ground slowly across the area on Saturday, the company that operates the Cancun airport, Grupo Aeroportuario del Sureste, said Wednesday.

With navigational aids blown away, pilots must operate largely by sight and by instruments within their planes, slowing the pace of operations and ruling out flights in bad weather or darkness.

The company said about 6,000 passengers should be able to leave on Wednesday. Others were being bused 10 hours or more across hurricane-damaged roads to the airport in Merida on the other side of the Yucatan Peninsula.

There, thousands found themselves stranded yet again. The airport was packed with people trying to get seats on flights that were booked full for days in advance and local hotels were full.

Nicole Samaha, the owner of MedioMundo Hotel, said her hotel has been full of evacuees trying to get flights home. She said some people had been sleeping outside on the lawn surrounding the airport because they couldn't find hotel rooms.

Still, most agreed that Merida was a huge improvement over Cancun.

"Some people came in (to the hotel) and started to cry because they couldn't believe they found a place that was clean and had running water," Samaha said.

Presidential spokesman Ruben Aguilar said Wednesday that 18,000 of the tourists trapped by the hurricane had left the Caribbean resort strip and 22,000 remained early Wednesday.

But there were signs of progress. Ruben Aguilar said 25 percent of Cancun and 28 percent of nearby Playa del Carmen had electricity, bringing light and water to some parts of the cities and letting many take their first showers since Thursday.

Workmen with bulldozers and hammers were clearing away debris in the hotel zone. Some restaurants and supermarkets were opening. And ever-resourceful souvenir vendors were hawking "I Survived Wilma" T-shirts to the hundreds of people lined up in buses and vans at a military checkpoint on the road to the Cancun airport.

"I really don't know what we're doing out here," said Paul Hiemke, 26, of Dallas, Texas, who had been on a honeymoon with his wife Jennifer and was now standing by the airport road with scores of other would-be evacuees.

"We don't know what we're waiting for. We're just hopeful that we'll be out of here by the weekend."

Officials said they were trying to get at least some hotels running by Christmas. Reconstruction coordinator Rodolfo Elizondo told W Radio on Wednesday that workers would begin a multi-million-dollar renewal of Cancun's beaches in January.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.