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Fast and furious

Hurricane Wilma zooms from coast to coast, leaving damaged skyscrapers and floods and knocking out power to 6-million.

By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN, JONI JAMES, TAMARA LUSH and CRAIG PITTMAN
Published October 25, 2005


Hurricane Wilma ripped across South Florida on Monday, killing at least six people, leaving an estimated 6-million without power and carving a trail of destruction that stretched from Naples to Miami.

"We have widespread damage on the west coast, on the east coast, in the center of the state and in the Keys," state Emergency Management Team chief Mike DeLorenzo said.

With winds of more than 100 mph, the storm shattered skyscraper windows in Miami, hammered airport terminal roofs in Fort Lauderdale and flattened mobile homes in Palm Beach County.

Pounding waves from the Category 3 storm washed across more than three-fourths of Key West, cutting off the island until the floodwaters receded.

"It was quite a punch," said Philip McCabe, owner of a Marco Island hotel called the Inn on Fifth Avenue. Thanks to Wilma the posh hotel, located in one of the state's wealthiest communities, had no power and water was seeping through its roof.

Packing 125 mph winds, the eighth hurricane to strike Florida in 15 months made landfall around 6:30 a.m. near Cape Romano, an uninhabited island south of Naples.

Wilma roared along at 25 mph and by mid morning had zoomed across 100 miles to batter the cities on Florida's east coast. Then it roared out into the Atlantic Ocean heading north. Forecasters said it would likely remain offshore.

Wilma swept across a chunk of the state occupied by more than 10-million of the state's 16-million residents, ranging from wealthy retirees in Naples and Palm Beach to poor migrant workers in farm towns like Immokalee. At one point, Wilma's eye simultaneously touched five counties - Miami-Dade, Broward, Collier, Monroe and Hendry.

Although damage is still being tallied, insurance industry analysts estimated claims will be between $4-billion to $10-billion, by far the highest this year in Florida and equal to any of last year's four hurricanes.

The storm left more than 6-million people without electricity in 28 counties. Florida Power & Light officials said restoring power could take weeks.

Without power, sewer lift stations can't pump sewage, DeLorenzo said, and that means "we have a bad situation." And without electricity, gas stations throughout South Florida cannot pump gas. Also lacking power is Port Everglades, which supplies gas to much of the Florida peninsula.

Broward, Collier, Lee, Monroe and Palm Beach counties warned residents to boil water because of contamination concerns. Brevard, Highlands, Lee and Monroe counties issued curfews. Miami-Dade police made at least six arrests for looting.

Search-and-rescue teams were still at work, but officials have so far attributed at least six deaths to the storm. Among them: a Palm Beach man who tried to move his van as the eye passed over and was killed when he was knocked through the windshield, and a Boynton Beach woman who was crushed when her 200-pound sliding glass door blew in.

"I think it is a blessing to be alive," said Miguel Cabral, who narrowly avoided being struck by a falling construction crane in Miami Beach.

Gov. Jeb Bush, visiting Naples immediately after the storm, praised Florida emergency officials while blasting Louisiana officials for their response to Hurricane Katrina, a more powerful Category 4 storm that devastated the gulf coast two months ago.

Bush said Florida relies on local emergency managers, rather than waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to leap into action. FEMA and the governor's brother, President Bush, have been sharply criticized for the federal government's disorganized response to Katrina.

"In the case of Louisiana, it was left to the federal government to fill a void, and the consequences are there for the rest of the world to see," Bush said.

Among the thousands of homes damaged by Wilma was one in Davie owned by David Paulison, acting FEMA director and former chief of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department.

"We lost roofing tiles and our prized pink grapefruit tree," Paulison told the Miami Herald in a phone interview from Washington.

* * *

Wilma spent two days pounding Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. But once the storm hit Florida, it moved with tremendous speed and power.

Dave McGinnis, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center, said wind gauges in the lower Keys recorded sustained winds of 125 mph and gusts up to 134 mph at 1:45 a.m.

Then the gauges broke.

While the eye came ashore 20 miles south of Naples, the first area to feel Wilma's effect was Key West, where an estimated 90 percent of residents had ignored evacuation orders.

"Too many people stayed," the governor said. "And for the life of me, I cannot understand why."

Many Keys residents say they would rather ride out a hurricane at home than make the stressful, 155-mile ride to Miami in search of shelter.

"We've been though all the other ones," shrugged Amy Myers, 30. "If we left, we would probably be stuck somewhere for I don't know how many days."

But Wilma may have changed a few minds.

A forlorn look on his face, Douglas Leatherman high-stepped through the floodwaters on normally raucous Duval Street.

"It's just devastated," Leatherman said of his beloved city. "It's going to take a long time to clean this damn mess up."

Yet shopkeepers and hotel owners seemed eager to put Wilma behind them. On Monday afternoon, people took down storm shutters and swept branches away. They hoped to avoid cancellation of Fantasy Fest, which draws upwards of 70,000 people a year and is one of their biggest moneymakers.

Seawater washed across U.S. 1 in three places, cutting off the islands temporarily, and dumping boats and debris ashore.

Elizabeth Prieto, 39, and her boyfriend, Leo Cordoba Parrado, tried to ride the storm out on their 25-foot sailboat off Marathon. Big mistake.

"We almost died," said Cordoba Parrado.

At 6:30 a.m., they managed to maneuver the boat toward a patch of mangroves, then half-walked, half-swam to land.

"It was an adventure," sighed Prieto.

* * *

In Collier County, the normally well-manicured, upscale areas of Naples and Marco Island looked like soggy mulch piles on Monday afternoon. Broken trees littered the flooded streets.

Mike Murphy, chief of Marco Island Fire-Rescue, estimated up to 30 percent of the homes had suffered some type of structural damage.

At Naples Estates, a mobile home park in East Naples, trailers were crinkled like cans, trees were draped with pink fiberglass insulation and metal roofs were wrapped around palm trees.

"This looks like a war zone," said resident Tom Davis, 73.

Floodwaters swallowed the swampy outpost of Everglades City early Monday. U.S. 29, the only road into town, disappeared beneath the rising waters beside Jungle Erv's Airboat World. From there, the flood grew to chest-deep.

Homeowners stood on second-floor balconies, watching the water roll by below. The rapids carried away signs, trees, spiders, even an occasional small alligator.

Cecil and Betty Oglesby sat in their SUV with their dog, Scrappy, waiting anxiously for flooding to recede so they could return to the place they have lived since 1950.

"To not know what really happened to your home, it's kind of nerve-wracking," Betty Oglesby said.

* * *

As Wilma swept across the Everglades, federal and state officials feared it would damage the dikes holding in Lake Okeechobee. But preliminary assessments after it passed showed no problems, they said.

The lake stood at 15.6 feet before Wilma hit. The storm's winds pushed the water up to 19 feet high on the southwestern side and sucked it down to 10 feet on the northeastern side.

Then Wilma plowed into the coastal cities where, although they had had a week to prepare, many residents were caught off guard.

"I said beforehand that I thought people would be unpleasantly surprised by the power of this storm, and I think they have been unpleasantly surprised," said Tony Carper, Broward's emergency management director.

Hundreds of windows blew out of office buildings in downtown Fort Lauderdale, primarily in the courthouse area, and in downtown Miami, particularly along the Brickell Avenue business corridor.

"It looks like an explosion," said Carmen Rodriguez, who lives nearby.

Terminals at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport were so badly damaged they were expected to remain closed today.

In Sunny Isles Beach in Miami-Dade, two aluminum warehouses filled with hundreds of boats collapsed in a heap of twisted metal and fiberglass.

At Lakeside of the Palm Beaches mobile home park, about 10 of the 200 homes were ripped apart, exposing kitchen appliances, beds and toilets.

Mary Galvin, 49, came home to find the contents of her bedroom spilled out across her yard.

"I'm glad we left," she said. "We'd all be dead."

But she feared her cat, Lucky, didn't live up to his name.

"I'm afraid he's in there," she said, pointing to the rubble. She clutched a plastic angel from her bedroom to her chest. Tears glistened in her eyes.

--Times staff writers Steve Thompson, Louis Hau and Brady Dennis and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which includes information from the Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Associated Press.

[Last modified October 25, 2005, 04:18:30]


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