Wilma Slams Florida

10-24-05 - Hurricane Wilma crashed ashore early Monday as a strong Category 3 storm, battering southwest Florida with 125 mph winds and pounding waves as it began a dash across the state. At least one death in Florida was blamed on the storm.

The same storm that brought ruin over the weekend to resort towns along Mexico's Yucatan Coast flooded large sections of Key West and other areas and knocked out power to more than 300,000 homes and businesses in the Keys and in such places as Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

In Cuba, huge waves crashed into Havana, swamping neighborhoods up to four blocks inland with floodwaters reaching up to 3 feet in some places. Basement apartments were submerged. In Cancun, Mexico, troops and federal police worked to control looting at stores and shopping centers ripped open by the hurricane, and hunger and frustration mounted among Mexicans and stranded tourists.

Wilma, Florida's eighth hurricane in 15 months, made landfall in Florida at 6:30 a.m. EDT near Cape Romano, 22 miles south of Naples, bringing with it a potential 18-foot storm surge, the National Hurricane Center said. Up to 10 inches of rain and tornadoes were forecast for parts of central and southern Florida.

"I looked out our place and I saw a bunch of stuff flying by," said Paul Tucchinio, who was riding out the storm in a condo three blocks from the beach in Naples. "It sounds like someone threw a bunch of rocks against the boards. It's wicked."

Within 2 1/2 hours after Wilma came ashore, it had weakened to a Category 2 storm with 110 mph winds as it raced across the state toward heavily populated Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties on the Atlantic coast.

A man in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Coral Springs died when a tree fell on him, Broward County spokesman Carl Fowler said. Wilma killed at least three people in Mexico and 13 others in Jamaica and Haiti as it made is way across the Caribbean last week.

More than 33,000 people were in shelters across the state. But in the low-lying Florida Keys, not even 10 percent of the Keys' 78,000 residents evacuated, Sheriff Richard Roth said. Key West was getting sustained winds of 60 mph, with gusts of 76 mph.

About 35 percent of Key West was flooded, including the airport, said Jay Gewin, an assistant to the island city's mayor. No travel was possible in or out of the city, he said. U.S. 1, the only highway connecting the Keys to the mainland, was flooded.

Key West Police Chief Bill Mauldin said the flooding was severe _ "more extensive than we've seen in the past." But he said he would not know until the full extent of any damage until the winds died down.

By 9 a.m., the storm was centered in the middle of the state about 45 miles southwest of West Palm Beach. It was moving northeast at about 25 mph.

Flooding was reported a few islands to the north on the snowbird enclave of Marco Island, and in downtown Naples. "But we really are only halfway through the storm, so we can't get out to assess things," Collier County emergency management spokeswoman Jaime Sarbaugh said.

By midafternoon, a weaker Wilma was expected to skirt the southern end of Lake Okeechobee and head into the Atlantic off Palm Beach County. By early Wednesday, it was expected to be off the coast of Canada, but forecasters said it may not bring heavy rain because its projected track was far off shore.

David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said FEMA personnel were in shelters waiting for the hurricane winds to die down before they could assess the damage and begin relief efforts. He said he was "very concerned" that so many people in the Keys did not evacuate.

While FEMA was bitterly criticized for its sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, this time the agency had people working side by side with state emergency officials, Paulison said.

"We are going to make sure that we have good visibility on anything that's going on the ground to make sure we ... understand exactly what's happening," he said on CBS.

FEMA personnel are "ready to go," Paulison said on CNN. "They're motivated, they're going to get on top of this and move very quickly."

Weary forecasters also monitored Tropical Depression Alpha, which became the record-breaking 22nd named storm of the 2005 Atlantic season. Alpha, which drenched Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Sunday, was not considered a threat to the United States.

Gov. Jeb Bush asked that Florida be granted a major disaster declaration for 14 counties. Many of the areas bracing for Wilma were hit by hurricanes in the past two years.

The National Guard was on alert, and state and federal officials had trucks of ice and food ready to deploy. FEMA was poised to send in dozens of military helicopters and 13.2 million ready-to-eat meals if needed.

In Miami Lakes, as Wilma spun more than 150 miles away, the blue glow of transformers exploding illuminated the pre-dawn sky. Large signs marking exits on the Palmetto Expressway were already toppled by Wilma's gusts, which were only tropical-storm force at that time.

Wilma's arrival also was announced by at least four tornadoes _ including one near Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral _ that caused some structural damage to businesses, but no injuries.

Wilma, which prompted the fourth evacuation of the Keys this year, earlier battered the Mexican coastline with howling winds and torrential rain.

One serious injury was reported in Florida on Sunday: a 12-year-old girl suffered a fractured skull in Wellington when falling hurricane shutters struck her head, said Palm Beach County Sheriff's spokesman Paul Miller. She was hospitalized in critical condition.

In Europe, crude oil slipped below $60 as traders expected Wilma to avoid already battered Gulf of Mexico oil producing and refining facilities. At least four companies operating in the gulf shut down production platforms.


On the Net:

National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov