NAPLES, Fla. (AP) – Hurricane Wilma plowed into southwest Florida early yesterday 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.

Jess Cox
Courtney Watson, 14, surveys her neighborhood in Everglades, Fla., which was flooded by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico driven in by Hurricane Wilma on Monday.

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 in the open Atlantic.

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. Officials said it was the most damaging hurricane to hit the Fort Lauderdale area since 1950.

“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 tomorrow. Forecasters said that it should stay largely offshore along most of the East Coast, but another storm system coming in behind it from the west could bring heavy rain to New England and the Mid-Atlantic states today.

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 of more than 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.”


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