October 24, 2005

Hurricane Wilma strengthens, lashes Florida

By Laura Myers

KEY WEST, Florida (Reuters) - A strengthening Hurricane
Wilma lashed southern Florida on Monday as it raced toward the
densely populated Miami area after pounding Mexico's Yucatan
Peninsula and killing 17 people on a rampage through the

At one point the most intense hurricane on record in the
Atlantic, Wilma weakened after hammering Cancun and Cozumel for
three days with punishing winds and rains, destroying homes and
ruining luxury hotels.

But the vast and menacing storm's maximum sustained winds
strengthened to 120 mph (193 kph) overnight as it roared toward
Florida, where storm-weary residents largely ignored evacuation
orders. Wilma was a Category 3 storm, capable of causing
extensive damage.

"We were hoping that it would weaken some before it makes
landfall," Max Mayfield, director of the U.S. National
Hurricane Center, told Miami's WFOR television. "We're not
certain that will happen now."

The center of the storm was expected to come ashore in
Florida around daybreak near the wealthy city of Naples on the
southwest coast.

Hurricane-force wind gusts from the large storm were
already hitting parts of the lower Florida Keys, with a gust of
76 mph (122 kph) reported at Key West, the hurricane center

The streets of the Keys, a 110-mile (175-km) island chain
no more than 16 feet above sea level at its highest point and
connected to the Florida mainland by a single road, were
deserted and dark as the winds and rains picked up overnight,
and power went out block by block.

Seawater sloshed into downtown streets in Key West.

Fatigued after having been forced to evacuate for three
earlier hurricanes this season, and after waiting many days for
Wilma to near the United States, no more than 7 percent of the
Keys' 80,000 residents fled ahead of Wilma, officials said.

The last city evacuation bus left Key West on Sunday
morning with only the driver and one passenger despite fears
that Wilma's storm surge could wash out the Overseas Highway
and strand residents without power, water or telephone lines.

"The storm had meandered around so long that it lured me
into a false sense of security," said Key West resident Warren

In southwest Florida, residents crowded restaurants and
bars on Sunday evening in Naples and seemed to pay little heed
to warnings the hurricane could bring a tidal surge of up to 17
feet to the area.

Wilma was the eighth hurricane to strike Florida in a
little over 14 months, an unprecedented display of nature's

The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, which ends on November
30, became the busiest since records began 150 years ago with
the formation on Saturday of the 22nd named tropical cyclone,

It also boasts three of the most intense Atlantic storms on
record, with Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in August
and killed 1,200, Rita, which hit the Texas-Louisiana border a
few weeks later, and now Wilma, the storm with the lowest
barometric pressure reading ever observed in the Atlantic.


Wilma caused severe damage in Cancun and on the island of
Cozumel off Mexico's Yucatan.

Many of the 20,000 or more tourists stranded on the "Maya
Riviera" were short of food and water and becoming increasingly
frustrated on Sunday as they faced a fourth night in cramped
shelters with no electricity or running water.

The storm killed seven people in Mexico, fewer than many
had feared. It killed 10 people in Haiti last week after
spawning mudslides in the impoverished Caribbean country.

"There is huge devastation. This hurricane has provoked a
tremendous impact. But Mexico has experience and it was
demonstrated right from the beginning, saving lives," Mexican
President Vicente Fox told Reuters in Cancun.

By 3 a.m. (0700 GMT), the center of Wilma was about 75
miles west-northwest of Key West and 95 miles southwest of
Naples and moving northeast at a brisk 20 mph (32 kph).
Hurricane-force winds extended up to 85 miles, while tropical
storm-force winds stretched out 230 miles (370 km) from the

Wilma was expected to accelerate and shoot across the
Florida Peninsula like "a rocket," Mayfield said.

Some of its strongest winds were likely to be felt in the
area from Miami, through Fort Lauderdale to Palm Beach, where 5
million people live.

In Cuba, 86-mph (138-kph) wind gusts howled through the
deserted streets of Havana, knocking down lampposts and
smashing windows in some tall buildings. The city's 2 million
inhabitants hunkered down in the dark, listening to
battery-powered radios after authorities cut power to prevent
electrical accidents.

Rough seas stirred up by Wilma crashed over Havana's famed
Malecon sea wall after midnight, turning streets into rivers of
knee-deep floodwater. About 15 blocks were under water.

Firefighters rescued residents from flooded homes near the
seafront, carrying some elderly people to safety.

"We haven't seen it this bad in years," said resident
Alfredo Saurez.

(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Havana)