CANCUN, Mexico (AP) – Hurricane Wilma is long gone, but those it left stranded on Mexico’s Caribbean coast are tired, fed up and ready to go home after spending the better part of a week in foul-smelling shelters.

Sarah Royce
Tourists wait at a bus station for an opportunity to leave the resort city of Playa del Carmen, Mexico after Hurricane Wilma passed yesterday. (AP PHOTO)

President Vicente Fox said getting the tourists home – and then getting them back again by the start of tourism’s high season in December – was one of Mexico’s highest national priorities, given that Cancun attracts so many tourist dollars.

On Monday, buses began ferrying hundreds of tourists out of Cancun to Merida, about 170 miles to the west, where they may be able to wrangle homebound flights.

About 1,200 Americans and a busload of Britons were among the first evacuated by bus.

Officials said they hoped to open the Cancun airport by yesterday.

Still, almost 30,000 tourists remained stranded along the resort-studded coast.

“They should bring down transports. The conditions are getting worse, and people are going to start getting sick,” said Tom Dinonno, 48, of Levittown, N.Y., as his wife Karen struggled to make a credit-card call from a Cancun pay phone.

When the call finally went through after 20 minutes, they got their son’s answering machine – and silent tears started to stream down Karen’s cheeks.

Desperation like that echoed across the flooded, looted Cancun. A curfew was declared on Monday night, and police cars drove through the city, their lights flashing, barking orders over their loudspeakers for people to return to their homes.

“People are desperate. They are nervous,” Fox said.

He said the country’s first priority was to get enough food and water to the coast, and he dispatched Mexican military ships, planes and trucks to bring supplies.

He said the second priority was to get tourists home.

“I feel the Mexican government is helping here to an extent, doing the best they can,” said Kevin Riley, town finance administrator for Paw Paw, Mich. “But the U.S. has done nothing. Where is our government? They are only preparing for Florida. They forgot about us.”

Soldiers and federal police took to Cancun’s streets Monday after looters emptied entire blocks of stores, taking television sets, clothes, beer and even pizza delivery motorcycles. Police said about 200 people had been arrested.

The fact that the skies finally cleared in Cancun only made the waiting more unbearable.

“It’s like, the sun’s out, let’s go, and we’re still here,” said Lynn Wickum, of San Francisco, Calif., as she drank a beer at one of the few Cancun bars that finally opened. “We feel the frustration building. You wouldn’t want to make a scene, but at the same time, you’re ready to go home.”

Many of Cancun’s own 500,000 residents had lost nearly everything in flooded or destroyed homes.

For two days, Hurricane Wilma turned Cancun’s string of luxury hotels into an expensive breakwater, leaving their lobbies heaped with shattered metal, marble and glass, their gardens a swath of muck.

The booming string of Caribbean hotels anchored by Cancun produce almost half of Mexico’s $11 billion in yearly foreign tourism revenue, and they constitute a significant element in Mexico’s balance of trade.

“It is going to take us a couple of months to have 80, 90 percent of the tourism capacity of Cancun working,” Fox said in a televised interview as he stood before cars sloshing through still-flooded streets.

“We’re approaching the full tourist season. So speed is fundamental,” he added.

Full recovery could take until Easter week, according to Ana Patricia Morales, vice president of the Cancun Hotels Association.

Only six people were known to have been killed by Wilma in Mexico, Fox said adding to the 13 who died earlier in Jamaica and Haiti. At least six people died in Florida, bringing storm’s overall toll to 25.

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