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Monday, October 24, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hurricane Wilma rips across Florida into the Atlantic

The Associated Press

Hurricane Wilma developments

— Wilma made landfall as a Category 3 storm at 6:30 a.m. EDT Monday near Cape Romano on the southwest Gulf Coast. It then weakened to a Category 2 as it churned across the peninsula.

— At least one death blamed on storm.

— Up to 2.5 million customers lost power.

— More than 33,000 people in shelters across the state.

— The National Hurricane Center clocked a gust at its own building in Miami of 104 mph.

— President Bush signs disaster declaration

— About 35 percent of Key West flooded.

— Schools in Monroe, Broward, Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Collier, Okeechobee, Polk and Glades counties closed.

— Some 3,100 National Guard soldiers on duty.

— State emergency officials said 200 tractor-trailers of ice and 225 of water ready to be deployed. Truckloads of tarps and ready-to-eat meals were being assembled. Rescue teams on standby.

— Walt Disney World theme parks closed; Everglades National Park closed.

The Associated Press

NAPLES, Fla. – Hurricane Wilma plowed into southwest Florida early today with howling 125 mph winds and dashed across the state to the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area, blowing out windows in skyscrapers, peeling away roofs and knocking out power to millions of people. 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 came ashore in Florida as a strong Category 3 hurricane, but within hours had weakened into a Category 2 with winds of 105 mph. Early in the afternoon, it was back up to Category 3 with 115 mph winds as it swirled out into the open Atlantic on a course that was unlikely to affect the East Coast.

As it made its away across the state, Wilma caused widespread damage, flattening trees, tearing off screens, breaking water mains, littering the streets with signs and downed power lines, and turning debris into missiles.

"We have been huddled in the living room trying to stay away from the windows. It got pretty violent there for a while," said Eddie Kenny, 25, who was at his parents' home in Plantation near Fort Lauderdale with his wife. "We have trees down all over the place and two fences have been totally demolished, crushed, gone."

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 even as he worked to restore the profitable image of a carefree beachfront paradise.

Wilma, Florida's eighth hurricane in 15 months and the 21st storm in the busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record, came ashore in Florida at 6:30 a.m. EDT near Cape Romano, 22 miles south of Naples, spinning off tornadoes and bringing a potential for up to 10 inches of rain, the National Hurricane Center said.

The hurricane is expected to race up the Atlantic Seaboard and reach the coast of Canada by early Wednesday. But forecasters said it will probably stay so far offshore that it will not even bring heavy rain to the eastern United States.

"Most of the impact on the U.S. will be ending in the next several hours," Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center, said around midday.

The storm flooded large sections of Key West and other areas and knocked out power to up to 3.2 million homes and businesses as it rushed across the state and buffeted heavily populated Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties on the Atlantic coast with gusts over 100 mph.

In Fort Lauderdale, the hurricane blew out windows in numerous skyscrapers. In downtown Miami, broken glass from skyscrapers littered some streets and sidewalks in the Brickell Avenue financial district. A broken water main sprayed about 15 feet in the air, flooding four or five blocks of the avenue with up to 6 inches of water.

A gust was clocked at 104 mph at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, causing howling even in the bunker-like building.

In Weston, near Fort Lauderdale, Kim DuBois sat in her darkened house with her two children and husband, with the power out and the storm shutters up. For light they used a 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." She added: "Really what I'm afraid of is tornadoes."

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 no mandatory evacuations were ordered along Florida's heavily populated east coast. And in the low-lying Florida Keys, not even 10 percent of the Keys' 78,000 hardy, storm-tested residents evacuated, Sheriff Richard Roth said. This was the fourth hurricane evacuation of the Keys this year.

About 35 percent of Key West was flooded, including the airport, said Jay Gewin, an assistant to the island city's mayor. 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."

At 1 p.m. EDT, Wilma was centered about 65 miles northeast of West Palm Beach. But the big storm was still slamming the state. Hurricane-force winds of 74 mph or more extended up to 100 miles from the center. Wilma was moving northeast at about 25 mph and was expected to pick up the speed.

President Bush signed a disaster declaration for hurricane-damaged areas and promised swift action to help the victims.

"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."

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

"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.

State and federal officials had trucks of ice and food ready. FEMA was prepared to send in dozens of military helicopters and 13.2 million ready-to-eat meals.

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.

After battering the Mexican coastline with howling winds and torrential rain, Wilma pulled away from the Yucatan Peninsula on Sunday as a Category 2 storm and strengthened in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Wind shear that was expected to rob Wilma of some strength did not materialize.

A tornado touched down Monday in Brevard County, damaging an apartment complex. No one was injured. Wilma's arrival also was announced by at least four tornadoes Sunday night — including one near Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral — that damaged some businesses but caused no injuries.

Elaine Kelley, a 43-year-old waitress, was staying in her daughter's condo near the water in Everglades City, a village of about 700 people on the southwest coast. After wading through thigh-deep water to get to a nearby hotel, she said she wouldn't make the mistake of staying through a hurricane again.

"I'll never go through another one," a wet and shivering Kelley said. "I didn't expect anything like this. I was watching roofs blow off all over the place."

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 production installations.

Associated Press writers Allen Breed in Naples, Erik Schelzig in Marathon, David Royse in Key West, Fla., Melissa Trujillo in Oakland Park, and Ron Word and Brent Kallestad in Miami contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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