October 24, 2005

Hurricane Wilma hammers Florida mainland and Keys

By Jim Loney

MIAMI (Reuters) - Hurricane Wilma crashed ashore in
southwest Florida and roared across the peninsula, pounding
Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach on Monday after
slamming Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and killing 17 people in
the Caribbean.

Once the most intense hurricane on record in the Atlantic,
Wilma weakened after hammering Cancun and Cozumel for three
days with punishing winds and rains but revved up as it reached
Florida with top sustained winds of 125 mph (200 kph).

Wilma's powerful core struck the Florida mainland before
dawn on the west coast near Naples, blasting beach sand across
coastal roads, shredding power lines and bending palm trees. It
hit as a Category 3 storm on the five-stage hurricane intensity
scale, capable of causing significant damage.

"The rain is coming down sideways. We've had a handful of
tornadoes," said Jaime Sarbaugh, an emergency management
spokeswoman for Collier County, where Wilma made landfall.
"We're still in the middle of this hurricane so we're not
sending anyone out right now."

The sprawling storm, about 400 miles across, covered much
of the Florida peninsula and some of its strongest winds
whipped Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, the state's
most populous area with about 5 million people.

More than 315,000 Florida Power & Light customers, or more
than 630,000 people, were without power, the utility said.

Forecasters said Wilma could prove to be the strongest
storm in Miami since Hurricane Andrew caused more than $25
billion in damage in August 1992.

Before hitting the mainland, Wilma's eye roared just north
of Key West, the popular tourist island at the end of the
110-mile (175-km) Florida Keys island chain.

The streets of the Keys, no more than 16 feet above sea
level at their highest point and connected to the Florida
mainland by a single road, were dark and deserted as the winds
and rains picked up and power went out block by block.

Seawater sloshed into downtown streets in Key West and
local media reported parts of the Overseas Highway were swamped
in the Upper Keys.

"It's still angry out there. Oh my, the trees are really
blowing," said Key West resident Mary Casanova, who weathered
Wilma at a hotel in downtown Key West.

"I'm just praying that we just have a trailer out there,"
said Casanova, who lives at the north end of Key West, where
many of her neighbors decided to ride out the storm.

Fatigued after being forced to evacuate for three earlier
hurricanes this season, no more than 7 percent of the Keys'
80,000 residents fled ahead of Wilma, officials said.

Key West Police Chief Bill Mauldin said early on Monday he
had not received any reports of deaths or injuries.

In southwest Florida, where residents crowded restaurants
and bars on Sunday evening and seemed to pay little heed to
warnings, the hurricane's tidal surge was expected to be up to
18 feet above normal.

At 7 a.m. (1100 GMT), Wilma's center was just north of
Everglades City and was moving northeast at a brisk 23 mph (37
kph). Hurricane-force winds extended up to 90 miles , while
tropical storm-force winds stretched out 230 miles from the

Wilma was accelerating as it raced across the Florida
Peninsula. The storm plowed through the heart of the Everglades
-- Florida's famed "River of Grass" and home to endangered
species like the Florida panther and tens of thousands of
alligators -- on a path to the state's east coast around Palm
Beach County.


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.

In Mexico, Wilma caused severe damage in Cancun and on the
island of Cozumel off the 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.

In Cuba, 86-mph (138-kph) wind gusts howled through the
deserted streets of Havana, knocking down lamp posts and
smashing windows. Rough seas stirred up by Wilma crashed over
Havana's famed Malecon sea wall after midnight, turning streets
into rivers of knee-deep flood water. About 15 blocks were
under water.

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

(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Havana, Michael
Christie and Jane Sutton in Miami)