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In Miami-Dade, storm unleashes a nasty surprise

Published October 25, 2005

MIAMI - Despite almost a week's warning, Wilma still caught residents across Miami-Dade County by surprise. Forecast to brush the area with Category 1 winds at best, Wilma ended up so big no one was spared its ferocity.

After Wilma struck early Monday with Category 3 winds gusting at 120 mph, 98 percent of the county's population of 2.3-million were left without power. Not even Hurricane Andrew achieved that feat in 1992.

An 8 p.m. curfew was imposed across the county.

Hospitals, hotels and emergency services were operating on generators. Many streets were impassable. Fallen trees and debris transformed some of the most affluent neighborhoods into jungles of twisted branches.

Miami-Dade County appeared to have escaped the catastrophic destruction sustained during Andrew, however, with only limited damage to buildings. And South Florida escaped the severe flooding experienced during Katrina because fast-moving Wilma surprisingly brought almost no rain.

But it could take some time before life returns to normal as local and out-of-state utility crews race to restore power.

The high winds and lack of power severely disrupted the county's transportation system. Traffic signals were out countywide, in many places lying in the road in mangled heaps. The county's Metrorail system was put out of action when a high-voltage cable ripped loose in four places in south Miami. County officials said repairs could take three to five days.

"It wasn't supposed to be this bad," lamented Mike Puller, 37, a Key Biscayne charter fishing boat captain, surveying the smashed windows on his boat, the Lisa L . "We were told not to expect any storm surge, and we must have had about 5 feet at least."

The most dramatic scenes of destruction were along Miami's Brickell Avenue banking district, just south of downtown. Glass lay strewn in the street after Wilma shattered windows on some of the upper floors on South Florida's newest glitzy high-rise hotel and office buildings, including the five-star JW Marriott and Four Seasons.

Barely a window was left intact on the south-facing side of the 20-story Colonial Bank building, making it look almost derelict.

"Wilma really hit bad," said Miriam Martinez, 27, parking garage manager at the Banco Santander building. "It's usually windy down here," she said, referring to the strong breezes that are channeled through the canyon of high rises like a wind tunnel. "But I've never seen it like this."

Stormgazers out to observe the damage in the early afternoon were forced to run for cover when occasional gusts sent more shards of loosened glass falling hundreds of feet to the street below. To make matters worse, a burst water main flooded the street with 2 feet of water.

Fire emergency crews moved in to seal off areas around the damaged buildings. "I don't understand why these expensive buildings suffered so much," Miami City Fire Department Lt. Carlos Garcia said. "That's what building codes are for."

Miami Beach police blocked off the main causeways across the bay after reports of looting at several storm-damaged stores, causing major traffic tie-ups.

A store attendant at Surf Style, on the popular Lincoln Road pedestrian mall, said looters helped themselves after Wilma blew in the windows. Mannequins lay on the ground next to overturned sunglass stands in the smashed storefront.

Restaurants and bar owners said they were ready to reopen as soon as power was restored. "That's what we are all anxiously waiting for," said Elvis Taylor, manager of the Beacon Hotel on Ocean Drive. "For now, we are offering water and chips - compliments of the house."

[Last modified October 26, 2005, 12:10:27]

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