Floods, tornadoes as Wilma arrives

Hurricane Wilma plowed into south-west Florida early on Monday with howling 200kph winds and pounding waves, swamping Key West and knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of people as it began a dash across the state toward Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

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-three hurricane, but within two-and-a-half hours it had weakened into a category two with winds of 177kph.

“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, huge waves crashed into Havana, swamping neighbourhoods up to four blocks inland with floodwaters reaching up to nearly a metre in some places.
Basement apartments were submerged.

In Cancun, Mexico, troops and federal police moved in to control looting at stores and shopping centres ripped open by the hurricane, and hunger and frustration mounted among Mexicans and stranded tourists.

Landfall

Wilma, Florida’s eighth hurricane in 15 months, made landfall in Florida at 10.30am GMT near Cape Romano, 35km south of Naples, bringing with it a potential 5,4m storm surge, the National Hurricane Centre said. Up to 25cm 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.”

The storm flooded large sections of Key West and other areas and knocked out power to more than 300 000 homes and businesses as it raced across the state and began buffeting heavily populated Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties on the Atlantic coast.

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 spokesperson 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.

Severe flooding

More than 33 000 people were in shelters across the state. But in the low-lying Florida Keys, not even 10% of the Keys’ 78 000 residents evacuated, Sheriff Richard Roth said.

About 35% 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.

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 1pm GMT, the storm was centred in the middle of the state, and was moving north-east at about 40kph.

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

Fema personnel ready

David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), 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 criticised 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.

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.

Governor 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 240km away, the blue glow of transformers exploding lit up the sky before daybreak. Large signs marking exits on the Palmetto expressway were already toppled by Wilma’s gusts, which were only tropical-storm force at that time.

Tornadoes

After battering the Mexican coastline with howling winds and torrential rain, Wilma pulled away from the Yucatan Peninsula on Sunday as a category-two 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 materialise.

A tornado touched down on Monday in Brevard county, damaging an apartment complex. No one was injured.

Wilma’s arrival also was announced by at least four tornadoes on Sunday night—including one near the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral—that damaged some businesses but caused no injuries.

Wilma prompted the fourth hurricane evacuation of the Keys this year.

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.—Sapa-AP

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

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