PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico (Reuters) - Hurricane Wilma slammed into Mexico's famed Caribbean beach resorts on Friday with screaming winds that flattened trees and signposts and trapped thousands of tourists inside cramped shelters.
Wilma's core rumbled over Cozumel island, a scuba-diving paradise, and ferocious winds and sheet rain lashed the resort town of Playa del Carmen.
It smashed down concrete walls and billboards, ripping water tanks off the roofs of houses and leaving power lines strewn across the ground. Floodwater rose to thigh-level.
"When the boards blew off our window we decided to look outside and -- Oh my God," said Gloria Winkles, a tourist from Texas sheltering in a small hotel in from the coast and looking out at raging waters that half submerged a blue jeep.
"When we get tornadoes in Texas they come and go in 20 minutes. But this seems to be going on for ever," she said.
Powerful waves swallowed up white sand beaches and flooded low-lying areas, and gusts of over 140 mph (225 kph) bent palm trees double as Wilma -- a slow-moving and dangerously wide Category 4 hurricane -- hung over the area.
Phone lines were out to Cozumel, where a stranded hotel worker described terrifying whistling winds.
In Cancun, a haven of luxury hotels perched on a long strip of sand, tourists evacuated to a business hotel away from the shore were told to stay in bathrooms, well away from windows.
"I'm going to make my bed in the bathroom. That's where they said I should go," said airport worker Ruben Guzman.
HOT, LEAKING SHELTERS
Forecasters warned of catastrophic damage as the eye of the storm moved in from the Caribbean, over the Yucatan peninsula.
"The Yucatan is really getting nailed on this," said Max Mayfield, director of the U.S. National Hurricane Center. "It will continue to pound that region for at least 24 hours."
Emergency officials warned the slow-moving storm could dump torrential rains across southern Mexico, raising the risk of lethal mudslides and damage to coffee crops in an area already devastated by Hurricane Stan earlier this month.
All along Mexico's "Maya Riviera," thousands of stranded backpackers huddled nervously in dank, sweaty gymnasiums and schools as the flimsy wooden beach cabins where many had been staying took a battering.
At a gymnasium in Cancun, 1,600 people lay on mattresses eating canned food and sweating, many stripped down to bathing suits or underwear. Some worried whether the walls would hold up, while an optimistic local entrepreneur sold T-shirts with the hopeful logo: "I Survived Hurricane Wilma."
"I wish it would get a move on. It's frustrating," said British software salesman Rob Stevens. "We've come a long way and now we are sitting here in a hot, damp, leaking building."
Mexican emergency officials said more than 50,000 people were evacuated and about 17,000 were put in schools, gymnasiums and hotel conference rooms further inland.
The storm was expected to dump 10 to 20 inches (25 to 50 cm) of rain across the Yucatan western Cuba. Some areas could get up to 40 inches (100 cm), U.S. forecasters said.
Mudslides caused by rains from Wilma killed 10 people in Haiti earlier this week.
Cuba was also reeling as rains drenched the west of the island and unleashed tornadoes that destroyed tobacco-curing sheds and homes. One person was badly injured by a sheet of zinc ripped off a roof.
"It made a terrifying noise, like a jet plane," said Felix Leon, in the town of San Juan y Martinez.
Cuba evacuated 368,000 people from low-lying areas as it braced for coastal storm surges and floods.
Wilma was expected to crash into heavily-populated southern Florida late on Sunday. While forecasters expect it to weaken by then, authorities in the Keys ordered tourists out and were considering evacuating the islands' 80,000 residents.
Wilma became the strongest Atlantic storm on record in terms of barometric pressure on Wednesday.
At 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) its center was crossing the northern tip of Cozumel and moving northwest at 5 mph (7 kph).
Wilma was expected to miss Gulf of Mexico oil and gas facilities but Florida's orange groves were at risk.
This hurricane season has spawned three of the most-intense storms on record. Experts say the Atlantic has entered a period of heightened storm activity that could last 20 more years.
(Additional reporting by Noel Randewich in Cancun, Anthony Boadle in Cuba, Lorraine Orlandi in Mexico City and Jane Sutton in Miami)
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