By CURT ANDERSON, Associated Press Writer
Hurricane Wilma left a wide, messy swath of damage Monday as it sped
across Florida with winds of more than 100 mph, shattering skyscraper
windows, peeling off roofs and knocking out power and communications
to at least 3.2 million customers from Key West to Daytona Beach.
One death was blamed on Wilma, and even storm-savvy Floridians found
the hurricane fearsome as it sliced through the middle of heavily
populated South Florida.
The Category 3 hurricane littered the landscape with damaged signs,
awnings, fences, billboards, roof tiles, pool screens, street lights and
electrical lines. Felled trees dotted even expressways, plus a foot or
two of water in many streets including the Tamiami Trail.
More than one-third of Key West flooded, cutting off the island, and
there was scattered floodwater elsewhere. In Fort Lauderdale, Miami
and Miami Beach, high-rises had countless windows blown out, including
at the Broward County Courthouse and the 14-story school board office
"Fort Lauderdale hasn't seen anything this bad in a long time," said
Adam Baer, 27, a courthouse employee and lifelong resident. Across the
street, a water cooler from an office above rested on the sidewalk.
All the Florida Keys was without power, and telephones and outages
extended as far north as Daytona Beach, an eight-hour drive up I-95
from Key West. While 'landline' phones were dead, cellular phones were
sporadic at best.
The eighth hurricane to strike Florida in 15 months made landfall
around 6:30 a.m. EDT near Cape Romano, an uninhabited island south of
Naples in Collier County on Florida's southwest coast. Wilma moved
northeast at 25 mph, and devastating winds reached Florida's east
coast by midmorning.
Gusts exceeded 100 mph in suburban Fort Lauderdale and Miami, where
winds howled in the bunker-like National Hurricane Center. A Coral
Springs man died when a tree fell on him, Broward County spokesman
Carl Fowler said.
By early afternoon, cleanup had begun. Monique Kilgore used a handsaw
and shears to get rid of debris in front of her Fort Lauderdale town
"I want my house to look nice," she said. "I'm also bored. I can't sit
in the house any longer. No power, no lights, no phone -- you know."
President Bush promised swift action. He signed a disaster declaration
for hurricane-damaged areas and was briefed on the situation by
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, acting FEMA director
David Paulison and Bush's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush.
"We have prepositioned food, medicine, communications equipment, urban
search-and-rescue teams," the president said. "We will work closely
with local and state authorities to respond to this hurricane."
The same storm that brought ruin over the weekend to resort towns in
Mexico weakened before leaving the Yucatan Coast, then regained
strength in the Gulf of Mexico before striking Florida.
In South Florida's sprawling suburbs, the blue glow of exploding
transformers illuminated the pre-dawn sky, and the storm stirred
whitecaps even on neighborhood lakes.
Broken water mains and a flooded water pumping station in the Fort
Lauderdale area prompted advisories to boil water, and a busted main
in downtown Miami sprayed water 15 feet in the air, flooding several
blocks of Brickell Avenue forcing a temporary water shut off there.
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 Key West, the southernmost point in the United States moved a
little farther north. Water from the gulf spilled over the spot
marking the tourist point in Key West, and streets were flooded four
blocks inland, but residents -- most of whom had stubbornly refused to
obey evacuation orders earlier -- were out in force in mid-afternoon
attempting to re-open their shops, cleaning up the litter, and
hooking up their portable generators.
"Within 45 minutes, it went from six inches to four or five feet deep,"
said Chris Elwell, whose new Porsche Boxster was submerged to the roof.
A Coast Guard station in the Keys was under four feet of water.
Even amateur hurricane chaser Josh Morgerman was impressed. Morgerman, a
marketing executive from Los Angeles, 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."
Morgerman said the hurricane was his fourth and "absolutely the most
Eqecat Inc., a risk modeling firm, said early estimates projected that
Wilma's insured losses would range from $2 billion to $6 billion. AIR
Worldwide Corp. estimated that insurance companies will have to pay
claims ranging from $6 billion to $9 billion.
Gov. Bush said 4,000 utility workers were ready to restore power and
communications. The North Carolina National Guard 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 wasn't 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.
To underscore the storm's vast reach, a tornado touched down near
Melbourne on the east coast, 200 miles from landfall, damaging an
apartment complex. No one was injured.
Closer to landfall, seven firefighters with Ochopee fire control
district were at their station when a tornado spawned by Wilma hit.
"We fought for two hours trying to stay alive," said chief Paul
Wilson, whose white shirt was stained with debris. "We braced (the
doors) with six-by-sixes, 12-by-twos, trucks, ropes, ladders. Firemen
can be creative, especially when it means live or die."
The snowbird enclave Marco Island was littered with damaged street
signs, roofing shingles, awnings and fences. Only 3,000 of the 15,000
residents stayed for the storm, the island's public works director
Parts of the Tamiami Trail, the main thoroughfare in Naples, were
flooded with about a half-foot of water. A resident was seen wading in
the water using a stick to open clogged drains so water could begin to
drain away. The ritzy Fifth-Avenue downtown district was covered with
tree branches, and merchants were working together to chop up the
tree branches and get them out of the way of the shop entrances.
Paul Tucchinio of Naples watched from his apartment as palm fronds flew
past and transformers exploded as the storm made landfall.
"Oh wow. I can see blue sparks," Tucchinio said. "It sounds like someone
threw a bunch of rocks against the boards. It's wicked."
At 2:30 p.m. EDT, Wilma had almost cleared the state and was centered
over the Atlantic about 125 miles northeast of West Palm Beach with wind
of 115 mph. It was moving northeast at about 29 mph.
The hurricane was expected to race up the Atlantic Seaboard and reach
the coast of Canada by early Wednesday. Forecasters said it will
probably stay so far offshore that it will not even bring heavy rain to
the eastern United States, but east coast places should expect to get
some rain as a result during the day on Tuesday.
Florida's strongest sustained winds of about 125 mph were felt on the
southwest coast, said Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the National
Hurricane Center. On the east coast, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm
Beach counties felt mostly Category 1 winds of 74-95 mph, with some
places there getting Category 2 winds of 96-110-mph, he said. Rappaport
noted "even further north, around Orlando, the people knew something
was up; one unusual thing was that even as the storm blew away, the
rain was 'absolutely drenching' ". He said that heavy rain is what the
northeast should expect on Tuesday, and much of Canada on Wednesday.
Weary forecasters also monitored Tropical Depression Alpha, two days
after that system formed off the Dominican Republic. Alpha briefly
became a tropical storm, the record 22nd named storm for the Atlantic
season, but wasn't considered a threat to the United States.
Associated Press writers Allen Breed in Naples, Erik Schelzig in
Marathon, David Royse in Key West, and Ron Word, Adrian Sainz and Brent
Kallestad in Miami contributed to this story, also writers for us in
Plantation, and Fema Village, FL.
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
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