October 24, 2005

Wilma pummels Florida, kills four, millions in dark

By Jane Sutton

MIAMI (Reuters) - Hurricane Wilma left a swath of flooding
and destruction across Florida on Monday, killing four people
and leaving millions in the dark on its four-hour rampage
across the state.

Risk assessment companies estimated insured losses from
Wilma at $6 billion to $10 billion in Florida.

Wilma smashed into southwestern Florida as a surprisingly
strong Category 3 hurricane after feeding for days over the
warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and killing 17 people in a
rampage through the Caribbean.

It swamped the low-lying Florida Keys, then hit the
mainland south of the fast-growing retirement city of Naples on
the southern Gulf Coast and sped across the Everglades to the
populous Miami-Fort Lauderdale area on the Atlantic Coast.

Four deaths were confirmed in Florida, including a man who
died when a tree fell on him in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of
Coral Springs. Two people died in Collier County in southwest
Florida and one in St. Johns County in northeast Florida.

State officials said 3.1 million households, or more than 6
million people, were without electricity.

Wilma flooded parts of the Overseas Highway linking the
Keys with the mainland. Emergency officials in Marathon, in the
middle of the 110-mile (175-km) island chain, reported
residents stranded on roofs by flooding and said leaking
propane tanks and gas lines had caused small explosions.


The hurricane buried coastal roads in sand, blasted windows
out of high-rise buildings, demolished mobile homes, flipped
cars and felled trees in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area.

Monica Rivadeneira, 34, retreated to a closet when Wilma's
winds whipped concrete blocks against her Miami Beach apartment
building. "I took a book and a light and my cellphone and I
called everybody I knew from the closet," she said.

"It was wild. The wind was howling."

Miami International Airport had structural damage that will
likely keep it closed for several days, said Miami-Dade County
Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who reported seeing only one working
traffic light during an initial check of the urban county.

Several hospitals were damaged or lost power. At least
three evacuated some patients after the storm passed, including
36 newborns from West Boca Hospital in Palm Beach County.

Wilma, a sprawling hurricane that covered much of Florida,
was the eighth hurricane to strike the state in 15 months.

"This ain't our first rodeo," Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings told
reporters in Tallahassee. "We have a lot of experience ... But
the rest of the story will not be as quick as the storm."

More than 3,100 National Guard troops were deployed and
another 3,500 were on alert. A handful of looting arrests were
reported and many cities imposed overnight curfews.


Wilma had weakened after three days hammering Cancun and
Cozumel in Mexico, where it battered the tourism industry, but
revved up to reach Florida with 125 mph (200 kph) winds.

They slowed to 105 mph (165 kph) during Wilma's furious
four-hour trek across Florida then strengthened again to race
northeast across the Atlantic with 120 mph (195 kph) winds.

Wilma's power startled thousands who ignored orders to
evacuate the Florida Keys. The eye moved north of Key West, but
a storm surge 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.

Wilma lashed Cuba with howling 86-mph (138-kph) winds on
its way east, paralyzing Havana and flooding coastal areas.
Roaring seas crashed over Havana's famed Malecon sea wall and
the capital's 2 million people were without power.

The worst of Wilma's ocean surge struck a largely
unpopulated area south of Naples. Search-and-rescue efforts
were focused on Marco Island and Everglades City on the
southwest cost, state officials said.

About 200 miles north of Miami, a boat crashed into a
bridge near the Kennedy Space Center, where Wilma ripped a roof
panel off the giant building where space shuttles are prepared
for flight.

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

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.

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 season spawned three of the most intense Atlantic
storms on record: Katrina devastated New Orleans in August and
killed 1,200 people, Rita hit the Texas-Louisiana border a few
weeks later, and now Wilma, which had had the lowest barometric
pressure reading ever observed in the Atlantic basin.

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