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Wilma hammers Florida

Hurricane pounds Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach after slamming Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and killing 17 in the Caribbean.

Reuters
3 min read
Hurricane Wilma crashed ashore in southwest Florida and roared across the peninsula, pounding Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach on Monday after slamming Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and killing 17 people in the Caribbean.

Once the most intense hurricane on record in the Atlantic, Wilma weakened after hammering Cancun and Cozumel for three days with punishing winds and rains but revved up as it reached Florida with top sustained winds of 125 mph.

Wilma's powerful core struck the Florida mainland before dawn on the west coast near Naples, blasting beach sand across coastal roads, shredding power lines and bending palm trees. It hit as a Category 3 storm on the five-stage hurricane intensity scale, capable of causing significant damage.

"The rain is coming down sideways. We've had a handful of tornadoes," said Jaime Sarbaugh, an emergency management spokeswoman for Collier County, where Wilma made landfall. "We're still in the middle of this hurricane so we're not sending anyone out right now."

The sprawling storm, about 400 miles across, covered much of the Florida peninsula and some of its strongest winds whipped Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, the state's most populous area with about 5 million people.

More than 315,000 Florida Power & Light customers, or more than 630,000 people, were without power, the utility said.

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

Before hitting the mainland, Wilma's eye roared just north of Key West, the popular tourist island at the end of the 110-mile Florida Keys island chain.

The streets of the Keys, no more than 16 feet above sea level at their highest point and connected to the Florida mainland by a single road, were dark and deserted as the winds and rains picked up and power went out block by block.

"Angry out there"
Seawater sloshed into downtown streets in Key West and local media reported parts of the Overseas Highway were swamped in the Upper Keys.

"It's still angry out there. Oh my, the trees are really blowing," said Key West resident Mary Casanova, who weathered Wilma at a hotel in downtown Key West.

"I'm just praying that we just have a trailer out there," said Casanova, who lives at the north end of Key West, where many of her neighbors decided to ride out the storm.

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

Key West Police Chief Bill Mauldin said early Monday he had not received any reports of deaths or injuries.

In southwest Florida, where residents crowded restaurants and bars on Sunday evening and seemed to pay little heed to warnings, the hurricane's tidal surge was expected to be up to 18 feet above normal.

Unprecedented display
Wilma was the eighth hurricane to strike Florida in a little over 14 months, an unprecedented display of nature's fury.

The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, which ends on Nov. 30, became the busiest since records began 150 years ago with the formation on Saturday of the 22nd named tropical cyclone, Alpha.

It also boasts three of the most intense Atlantic storms on record, with Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in August and killed 1,200; 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.

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 water and becoming increasingly frustrated on Sunday as they faced a fourth night in cramped shelters with no electricity or running water.

The storm killed seven people in Mexico, fewer than many had feared. It killed 10 people in Haiti last week after spawning mudslides in the impoverished Caribbean country.

In Cuba, 86 mph wind gusts howled through the deserted streets of Havana, knocking down lamp posts and smashing windows. Rough seas stirred up by Wilma crashed over Havana's famed Malecon sea wall after midnight, turning streets into rivers of knee-deep flood water. About 15 blocks were under water.

"We haven't seen it this bad in years," said resident Alfredo Saurez.