Five years ago today, everyone in Cancun was preparing for the arrival of hurricane Wilma. At the time, Wilma was the largest and most powerful hurricane ever, in the Caribbean. Satellite images showed the storm covering the entire Caribbean and most of Florida.
Cancun’s hotel zone has several hotels that double as hurricane shelters, but they can only handle up to a category 3 storm. Wilma was a category 5, as she barreled towards the Yucatan Peninsula. Due to the strength of the storm, the hotel zone was evacuated some hotel guests were taken to shelters in downtown Cancun, while others scrambled to get on the last flights out of town, before the airport was shut down.
The storm began on the evening of Thursday, October 20th, 2005. As a safety measure, city officials turn off all power when a major hurricane approaches. This prevents accidental deaths from fallen power lines. The power was turned off shortly after the storm began and, as a result of Wilma’s devastation, many Cancun residents would not have their electricity restored until a month after the storm passed.
In the past, hurricanes had always moved quickly through the area so shelters never needed to have much food and water on hand. Wilma had other plans and, after making landfall as a very strong category 4 storm, she decided to hang around for the weekend. The storm stalled over Cancun and, for 3 days, the region took a beating. Parts of the hotel zone were totally under water at some points during the storm.
On Sunday morning, October 23rd, Cancun finally saw sunshine, as Wilma moved out of the area. Wind gusts were still very strong, but the worst had passed. And, surprisingly, only a handful of deaths were reported. If you witnessed the devastation left in Wilma’s wake, you’d know that low number was nothing short of a miracle. It could have been SO MUCH worse.
Just hours after the storm had passed, the military had set up shop at city hall and they were handing out food and water to anyone that needed it. There was still no electricity but, in downtown Cancun, a few convenience stores were open. They only allowed a few people in the store at a time so that caused long lines, but the wait gave people a chance to recount their version of the storm with others. And, instead of standing around feeling sorry for themselves, or waiting for help to arrive, people started cleaning up the mess that Wilma caused.
Looking around at all of the fallen trees (some easily over 100 years old), broken glass, destroyed buildings, and flooded streets (although flooded streets are common in Cancun, during the lightest of rains), it was hard to imagine Cancun ever being able to get back on it’s feet. Then, a few days after the storm, roads to the hotel zone were reopened. The devastation and destruction there was much worse than in downtown Cancun, even though the two areas are only a few miles away from each other.
Vicente Fox, Mexico’s president at the time, came to Cancun right after the storm and surveyed the damage. Cancun, as you probably know, is a major tourist destination for people from around the world and it brings in millions of Dollars in revenue for the Mexican government each year. In this particular situation, greed was a good thing. To avoid losing scads of money, the government stepped in and got the ball rolling on the rebuilding of Cancun. Several resorts were open in days, and more opened by Christmas. Most hotels and businesses were closed for several months, however. Flights to the area were cancelled until early-December. But, within 6 months, Cancun was pretty much back to normal and, in some ways, it was even better than ever. Cancun’s world-famous beaches, which had been totally washed away during the storm, were rebuilt. Many new palm trees were planted. And hotels & other businesses used insurance money to fully remodel, or at least give their places a face-lift.
5 years later, there is no evidence of Wilma’s presence but, lessons were learned and Cancun residents take hurricane preparation much more seriously now. Also, hurricane shelters stock many more supplies than they used to, prior to Wilma.
Before Wilma, the last hurricane to make a direct-hit on Cancun was hurricane Gilbert, back in 1988. So, even though many storms form in the Atlantic & Caribbean each year, it’s rare for Cancun to be hit directly by a storm. And, it was very rare for Wilma to stall over Cancun and hang around for 3 days. (Most storms move much faster than that and only cause a bit of worry and panic for about 12 hours.) Hopefully, Cancun will not see another hurricane the likes of Wilma or Gilbert for many, many more years.
Here are some photos of the destruction caused by hurricane Wilma, in 2005:
And, here are some photos of Cancun today: