October 24, 2005

Wilma pummels Florida

By Jane Sutton

MIAMI (Reuters) - Hurricane Wilma crashed into Florida on
Monday, swamping the popular tourist island Key West and
hammering the densely populated Miami-Fort Lauderdale area
after killing 17 people in a rampage through the Caribbean.

Wilma hit the state as surprisingly strong Category 3
hurricane after feeding for days over the warm waters of the
Gulf of Mexico. It weakened to a Category 2 as it raced across
the state in about four hours, but dealt a harsh blow.

A man died when a tree fell on him in the Fort Lauderdale
suburb of Coral Springs, local officials said. The storm
knocked out electricity to more than 3 million people, as it
blasted beach sand across coastal roads and shredded power

Wilma had weakened after hammering Cancun and Cozumel in
Mexico for three days, but revved up to reach Florida with 125
mph (200 kph) winds. The winds slowed to 105 mph (165 kph) as
it crossed the state toward the Atlantic.

Wilma's power startled thousands of people in the
vulnerable, low-lying Florida Keys who ignored evacuation
orders. Although the eye moved north of Key West, a powerful
storm surge washed through the chain of islands and left much
of the tourist town made famous by writer Ernest Hemingway
under thigh-high water.

"There is massive flooding from tip to tip," Key West Mayor
Morgan McPherson said.

By 1 p.m. (1700 GMT) Monday, Wilma's center had begun to
move out over the Atlantic Ocean off Palm Beach County and was
heading northeast at about 25 mph (40 kph).


Wilma lashed Cuba on its way east, paralyzing Havana and
flooding coastal neighborhoods with howling 86-mph (138-kph)
winds. Roaring seas crashed over Havana's famed Malecon sea
wall. The Cuban capital of two million people was without

The eighth storm to hit Florida in the last 15 months,
Wilma struck the mainland before dawn on the west coast near
Naples, a fast-growing retiree city, and sped across the
Everglades to the populous east coast, pounding Miami, Fort
Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, an area of 5 million people.

The worst of the storm's ocean surge struck a largely
unpopulated area south of Naples, while search-and-rescue
efforts were focused on Marco Island and Everglades City, two
populated areas near Wilma's center, state officials said.

The sprawling storm, about 400 miles across, covered much
of the Florida Peninsula. Some of its strongest winds whipped
greater Miami, which alone had about 1.2 million customers, or
2.4 million people, without electricity, according to Florida
Power & Light.

The company said it had 1.6 million customers without power
in the state and had shut down three nuclear reactors.

Wilma blasted windows out of high-rise buildings,
demolished mobile homes and flipped cars in the Miami-Fort
Lauderdale area.

"I am in the closet with my 90-year-old mother," a man in
suburban Sunrise told television station WFOR via telephone
during the storm. "The roof literally came off my house ... and
blew across the street."

About 200 miles north of Miami, a boat crashed into the
Titusville Bridge near the Kennedy Space Center, where Wilma's
winds ripped a roof panel off the giant building in which space
shuttles are prepared for flight.

Forecasters said Wilma, at one point the strongest Atlantic
hurricane on record, could prove to be the strongest storm in
Miami since August, 1992, when Hurricane Andrew caused more
than $25 billion in damage.

Risk assessment company AIR Worldwide estimated insured
losses from Wilma at $6 billion and $9 billion in the United

President George W. Bush signed a major disaster
declaration for Florida and promised federal authorities would
work closely with local officials to distribute food, medicine,
water and communications equipment.


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

Mary Casanova weathered the storm in a Key West hotel but
feared for neighbors who rode it out in her low-lying mobile
home park. "I'm just praying that we just have a trailer out
there," said Casanova.

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 storm,

The unprecedented season spawned three of the most-intense
Atlantic storms on record, with Katrina, which devastated New
Orleans in August and killed 1,200 people, 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 basin.

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

The storm killed seven people in Mexico and triggered
mudslides that killed 10 people last week in Haiti.

(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Havana, Michael
Peltier in Tallahassee, Laura Myers in Key West, Michael
Christie and Jim Loney in Miami)