FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Hurricane Wilma (search) knifed through Florida with winds up to 125 mph Monday, shattering windows in skyscrapers, peeling away roofs and knocking out power to 6 million people, with still a month left to go in the busiest Atlantic storm season on record.
At least six deaths were blamed on the hurricane in Florida (search), bringing the toll from the storm's march through the tropics to 25.
After a slow, weeklong journey that saw it pound Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula (search) for two days, Wilma made a mercifully swift seven-hour dash across lower Florida, from its southwestern corner to heavily populated Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach on the Atlantic coast.
"We have been huddled in the living room trying to stay away from the windows. It got pretty violent there for a while," said 25-year-old Eddie Kenny, who was at his parents' home in Plantation near Fort Lauderdale. "We have trees down all over the place and two fences have been totally demolished, crushed, gone."
The insurance industry estimated insured losses in Florida at anywhere from $2 billion to $9 billion. Officials said it was the most damaging storm to hit the Fort Lauderdale area since 1950.
The 21st storm of the 2005 season — and the eighth hurricane to hit Florida in 15 months — howled ashore around daybreak just south of Marco Island as a Category 3, cutting electricity to the entire Florida Keys. A tidal surge of up to 9 feet swamped parts of Key West in chest-high water, and U.S. 1, the only highway to the mainland, was flooded.
"A bunch of us that are the old-time Key Westers are kind of waking up this morning, going, `Well, maybe I should have paid a little more attention,"' said restaurant owner Amy Culver-Aversa, among the 90 percent of Key West residents who chose to ignore the fourth mandatory evacuation order this year.
As it moved across the state, Wilma weakened to a Category 2 with winds of 105 mph. But it was still powerful enough to flatten trees, flood streets, break water mains, knock down signs, turn debris into missiles and light up the sky with the blue-green flash of popping transformers.
By early afternoon, Wilma had swirled out into the open Atlantic, back up to 115-mph Category 3 strength but on a course unlikely to have much effect on the East Coast. Forecasters said it would stay well offshore.
Wilma brought 8 inches of rain to Miami-Dade County, nearly 61/2 to Naples and 3 to Fort Lauderdale. The flooding could well have been worse if the storm had lingered over the state instead of racing straight through, National Hurricane Center meteorologist Mark McInerney said.
"There's really no good scenario for a hurricane. Just a lesser of two evils," he said.
More than one-third of the state's residents lost power. Florida Power & Light, the state's biggest utility, said it could take weeks to restore electricity to everyone.
The storm's reach was so great that it blacked out homes and businesses as far north as Daytona Beach, an eight-hour drive north from Key West. Also, a tornado spun off by the storm damaged an apartment complex near Melbourne on the east coast, 200 miles from where Wilma came ashore.
"Everything is put on hold," said Carrie Carlton, 29, a medical assistant who waited in line for the one working pay phone at a Fort Lauderdale convenience store. "What's really frustrating is you can't get in touch with anyone, either. ... People are hungry, and when you get hungry, you get" angry.
In Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Miami Beach, countless windows were blown out of high-rises. Along downtown Miami's Brickell Avenue, broken glass from skyscrapers littered streets and sidewalks. Broken water mains in the Fort Lauderdale area prompted advisories to boil water, and a ruptured main in downtown Miami sprayed water 15 feet in the air.
The Broward County Courthouse and the 14-story school board office complex looked like bombed-out buildings. All three of South Florida's major airports — Miami International, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood and Palm Beach — were closed at least until Tuesday.
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 Weston, near Fort Lauderdale, Kim DuBois sat in her darkened house with her two children and husband, with the only light coming from the 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."
In the snowbird enclave Marco Island, where only about 3,000 of the 15,000 residents were believed to have stayed for the storm, the streets were littered with damaged street signs, roofing shingles, awnings and fences.
The storm impressed even amateur hurricane chaser Josh Morgerman. A marketing executive from Los Angeles, Morgerman 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."
A man in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Coral Springs died when a tree fell on him. A woman in rural Collier County died when her roof collapsed on her or a tree fell on her roof. In Palm Beach County, a man went to move his van and was killed when debris smashed him into the windshield.
Also, an 83-year-old St. Johns County woman died in a weekend car crash while evacuating. A man in Collier County had a fatal heart attack while walking in the storm. An 82-year-old woman in Boynton Beach died after a sliding glass door in her living room fell on her as she looked out.
Wilma also killed at least six people in Mexico and 13 others in Jamaica and Haiti as it made is way across the Caribbean.
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.
Wilma's arrival in Florida came five days after it astounded forecasters with terrifying Category 5 winds of 175 mph. At one point, it was the most intense storm — as measured by internal barometric pressure — on record in the Atlantic basin.
Wilma shared space in the Atlantic with Tropical Depression Alpha, which became the record-breaking 22nd named storm of the 2005 season. Alpha, which drenched Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Sunday, was not considered a threat to the United States.
President Bush, bitterly criticized for a sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, signed a disaster declaration for hurricane-damaged areas and promised swift action to help Wilma's victims. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was prepared to send in dozens of military helicopters and 13.2 million ready-to-eat meals.
"We have prepositioned food, medicine, communications equipment, urban search-and-rescue teams," he said. "We will work closely with local and state authorities to respond to this hurricane."
National Guard units 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 was not 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.