PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico (Reuters) - Hurricane Wilma's fierce winds and rain battered Mexico's famed Caribbean beach resorts on Friday, knocking over trees and trapping thousands of nervous tourists inside cramped shelters.
Powerful waves swallowed up white sand beaches in the popular resort of Cancun and electricity was cut all along Mexico's "Maya Riviera" and on the island of Cozumel, a favorite of scuba divers and cruise ship passengers.
Sturdy tropical trees danced in howling winds and others lay toppled in empty and flooded streets in the resort of Playa del Carmen, just south of Cancun. Snapped electricity cables dangled above the streets, sending sparks flying.
"The sound of the wind is what is frightening," said Rossy Mischne, who was holed up inside the Cozumel hotel where she works.
Stinging rains gathered strength as Wilma, a Category 4 hurricane, moved in slowly from the Caribbean with winds of 145 mph. Forecasters warned the storm could cause catastrophic damage.
Emergency officials warned the slow-moving storm could linger over the Yucatan peninsula and dump torrential rains across southern Mexico, raising the risk of lethal mudslides and damage to coffee crops.
At one gymnasium in Cancun, about 1,600 people slept on mattresses and ate canned food. A local entrepreneur sold T-shirts with the hopeful logo: "I Survived Hurricane Wilma."
Mexican emergency officials said more than 50,000 people were evacuated and about 17,000 were put in shelters such as schools, gymnasiums and hotel conference rooms further inland.
Hundreds of construction workers, most from the southern state of Chiapas, were moved from their temporary lodgings in outdoor camps and building sites in Playa del Carmen.
In a kindergarten classroom near the beach, 50 men sat on the concrete floor of a classroom, too cramped to lie down, eating with their hands from cans of donated tuna fish.
"This sucks," said Juan Cruz Perez, a 21-year-old metal worker from the Gulf state of Tabasco.
The storm was expected to dump 10 to 20 inches of rain across the Yucatan and isolated areas of mountainous western Cuba. Some areas could get up to 40 inches , the U.S. National Hurricane Center
said in Miami.