October 25, 2005

Florida reeling from Wilma’s rampage

By Michael Christie

MIAMI (Reuters) - Southern Florida was reeling on Tuesday
after enduring a four-hour assault by Hurricane Wilma that
killed at least four people, cut power to millions of homes and
caused billions of dollars in damage.

The storm smashed into the state on Monday as a
surprisingly strong Category 3 hurricane with 125-mph (200-kph)
winds, having fed on the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico
after killing 17 people in a rampage through the Caribbean.

Wilma flooded the low-lying Florida Keys, then hit the
mainland south of the fast-growing retirement city of Naples
and sped across the Everglades to the populous Miami-Fort
Lauderdale area on the Atlantic Coast, blasting windows out of
high-rise buildings, destroying mobile homes and flipping cars.

Forecasters said Wilma was the strongest storm to hit the
Miami area since August 1992, when Hurricane Andrew caused more
than $25 billion in damage. It was the eighth hurricane to
strike Florida in 15 months.

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 cell phone and I
called everybody I knew from the closet," she said.

"It was wild. The wind was howling."

Miami International Airport suffered damage likely to keep
it closed for several days.

Wilma's power stunned thousands who had ignored orders to
evacuate the Florida Keys.

It pushed a wall of seawater about 8 feet above normal
tides into the island chain off mainland Florida's southern
tip, dumping thigh-high water in the streets of Key West, the
tourist town made famous by writer Ernest Hemingway.

The town, home to 25,000 people, may have sustained $100
million in damage, City Manager Julio Avael said. "We have
hundreds of homes under water, thousands of vehicles damaged,
and we need to place residents in shelters," he said.

The storm forced the postponement of Key West's annual
Fantasy Fest, an annual Halloween costume festival that draws
thousands of visitors and had been due to start on Wednesday.


At 5 a.m. (0900 GMT) on Tuesday, Wilma's maximum sustained
winds had fallen to 115 mph (185 kph) as the storm sped
northeast over the Atlantic at 53 mph (85 kph), the U.S.
National Hurricane Center said. The storm was expected to
weaker further and lose its tropical characteristics during the
next 24 hours.

Wilma was expected to pass a few hundred miles southeast
and east of North Carolina's Outer Banks by Tuesday morning and
possibly reach the Canadian Maritimes by late Tuesday or early
on Wednesday.

The storm was expected to stay well offshore the
Northeastern United States, but a combination of weather
systems was expected to bring high winds, heavy rain and even
snow to parts of the U.S. Northeast, forecasters said.

Before hitting Florida, Wilma devastated the tourist resort
of Cancun, Mexico, over the weekend.

The first few foreign tourists headed home from the resort
Monday, but thousands remained in shelters where they have been
stranded for days by the hurricane without electricity or
running water.

"I am totally and utterly fed up and dying to get out of
here. It's been horrible," said Sally Goodrick, 42, a British
beauty therapist traveling with her mother.

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

The storm also pounded Cuba, paralysing Havana and flooding
coastal neighborhoods with 86-mph (138-kph) winds.

This year's hurricane season, which does not end until
November 30, has spawned three of the most intense Atlantic
storms on record: Katrina devastated New Orleans in August and
killed 1,200, Rita hit the Texas-Louisiana border a few weeks
later, and Wilma at one point boasted 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, Jane Sutton
and Jim Loney in Miami)