Hurricane Wilma races across Florida, knocking out power to 6 million; at least six dead
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – As messy as Wilma was, at least the visit didn’t last long.Hurricane Wilma, the 21st storm in the busiest hurricane season on record, made a seven-hour dash across lower Florida on Monday, shattering skyscraper windows, toppling trees, knocking out power to 6 million people and leaving at least six dead.It entered one side of the state around daybreak; it came out the other side by midafternoon, and was soon all but gone, swirling harmlessly out in the Atlantic.Unlike its two-day pounding of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Wilma’s Florida foray was a hit and run. The storm’s relatively fast 25-mph speed helped hold its rainfall to less than the 10 inches feared.”There’s really no good scenario for a hurricane,” National Hurricane Center meteorologist Mark McInerney said. “Just a lesser of two evils.”Wilma still packed plenty of punch. The eighth hurricane to hit Florida in 15 months howled ashore just south of Marco Island on the southwest coast as a 125-mph Category 3, weakening only slightly to a 105-mph Category 2 as it moved across the state to heavily populated Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach on the Atlantic coast.”We have been huddled in the living room trying to stay away from the windows. It got pretty violent there for a while,” said 25-year-old Eddie Kenny, who was at his parents’ home in Plantation near Fort Lauderdale. “We have trees down all over the place and two fences have been totally demolished, crushed, gone.”The first to feel its wrath was the Florida Keys, which immediately lost power and saw U.S. 1, its only route to the mainland, cut off by floodwaters. Water from a 9-foot storm surge rose quickly in the low-lying island chain, rapidly reaching the tops of cars four blocks inland and seeping into homes owners had thought would never flood.”A bunch of us that are the old-time Key Westers are kind of waking up this morning, going, ‘Well, maybe I should have paid a little more attention,”‘ said restaurant owner Amy Culver-Aversa, among the 90 percent of Key West residents who chose to ignore the fourth mandatory evacuation order this year.As it moved across the state, Wilma flattened trees, broke water mains, turned debris into missiles and lit up the sky with the blue-green flash of popping transformers.The insurance industry estimated the insured losses in Florida at anywhere from $2 billion to $9 billion. Officials said it was the most damaging storm to hit the Fort Lauderdale since 1950.The storm’s reach was so great that it left homes and businesses without power as far north as Daytona Beach, an eight-hour drive north from Key West. A tornado spun off by the storm damaged an apartment complex near Melbourne on the east coast, 200 miles from where Wilma came ashore.”Everything is put on hold,” said Carrie Carlton, 29, a medical assistant who waited in line for the one working pay phone at a Fort Lauderdale convenience store. “What’s really frustrating is you can’t get in touch with anyone, either. … People are hungry, and when you get hungry, you get” angry.By early afternoon, Wilma had swirled out into the open Atlantic, back up to 115-mph Category 3 strength but on a course unlikely to have much effect on the East Coast. Forecasters said it would stay well offshore.As the floodwaters in Key West receded, some of those who defied the evacuation orders felt vindicated. “If it doesn’t get any worse than this, there’s no point in leaving,” said Fran Masat, wringing out towels he had used to soak up the water that covered his terrazzo floor.Wilma brought 8 inches of rain to Miami-Dade County, nearly 6 1/2 to Naples and 3 to Fort Lauderdale.In Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Miami Beach, countless windows were blown out of high-rises. Along downtown Miami’s Brickell Avenue, broken glass from skyscrapers littered streets and sidewalks. Broken water mains in the Fort Lauderdale area prompted advisories to boil water, and a ruptured main in downtown Miami sprayed water 15 feet in the air.All three of South Florida’s major airports – Miami International, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood and Palm Beach – were closed at least until Tuesday.The Miami Police Department building lost some letters on its sign.”It was a wild and crazy night,” Lt. Bill Schwartz said. “This building, built in 1976, shook like it was 1876.”In Weston, near Fort Lauderdale, Kim DuBois sat in her darkened house with her two children and husband, with the only light coming from the battery-powered pumpkin lantern they bought for Halloween.”I could hear tiles coming off the roof,” she said. “There are trees on cars and flooding at the end of our street.”In the snowbird enclave Marco Island, where only about 3,000 of the 15,000 residents were believed to have stayed for the storm, the streets were littered with damaged street signs, roofing shingles, awnings and fences.The storm impressed even amateur hurricane chaser Josh Morgerman. A marketing executive from Los Angeles, Morgerman flew to Tampa on Saturday to meet the storm, left Naples as the eye passed and drove to Everglades City.”It was very serene and there were birds flying,” a wet and shivering Morgerman said. “And then when we got here and got out of the car, it was like a rocket went off.”A man in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Coral Springs died when a tree fell on him. Another man in rural Collier County died when his roof collapsed on him or a tree fell on his roof. In Palm Beach County, a man went to move his van and was killed when debris smashed him into the windshield.An 83-year-old St. Johns County woman died in a weekend car crash while evacuating. A man in Collier County had a fatal heart attack while walking in the storm. An 82-year-old woman in Boyton Beach died after a sliding glass door in her living room fell on her as she looked out.Wilma was also blamed for six deaths in Mexico and 13 in Jamaica and Haiti, bringing its over toll to 25.In Cuba, rescuers used scuba gear, inflatable rafts and amphibious vehicles to pull nearly 250 people from their flooded homes in Havana after Wilma sent huge waves crashing into the capital city and swamped neighborhoods up to four blocks inland with 3 feet of water.In Cancun, Mexico, troops and federal police moved in to control looting at stores and shopping centers ripped open by the hurricane, and hunger and frustration mounted among Mexicans and stranded tourists. President Vicente Fox announced plans to start evacuating some 30,000 frazzled tourists.Wilma’s arrival in Florida came five days after it astounded forecasters with terrifying Category 5 winds of 175 mph. At one point, it was the most intense storm – as measured by internal barometric pressure – on record in the Atlantic basin.Wilma shared space in the Atlantic with Tropical Depression Alpha, which became the record-breaking 22nd named storm of the 2005 season. Alpha, which drenched Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Sunday, was not considered a threat to the United States.President Bush, bitterly criticized for a sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, signed a disaster declaration for hurricane-damaged areas and promised swift action to help Wilma’s victims. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was prepared to send in dozens of military helicopters and 13.2 million ready-to-eat meals.”We have prepositioned food, medicine, communications equipment, urban search-and-rescue teams,” he said. “We will work closely with local and state authorities to respond to this hurricane.”National Guard units airlifted 12 patients from a Key West hospital, and other units were prepared to deliver food, water and other supplies to the Keys.For a change, lack of air conditioning was not an immediate concern in the aftermath of a hurricane. The strong cold front that pushed Wilma through Florida was expected to send the wind-chill factor into the 40s Tuesday morning.—Associated Press writers Allen Breed in Naples, Erik Schelzig in Marathon, Melissa Trujillo in Fort Lauderdale, David Royse in Key West, and Ron Word, Adrian Sainz and Brent Kallestad in Miami contributed to this story.