After pummeling Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula for nearly two days, Hurricane Wilma is heading toward Florida packing torrential rains, 100 mph winds and the potential for devastating tornadoes and storm surges tomorrow.
Forecasters warned residents on the state's heavily populated east coast not to be lulled by the hurricane's expected landfall on the southwest coast.
"Particularly with the speed of this hurricane, it's quite possible that it will maintain hurricane strength as it crosses the state," said Craig Fugate, Florida's emergency management director. "This will not just be a coastal event in southwest Florida and the Keys - it's potentially going to reach further north as winds impact those areas. We could see heavy rain and tornadoes well away from the center of circulation."
In Mexico, 130-mph winds shattered windows and tore off hotel roofs, turning hallways into wind tunnels and sending rain into rooms. In hotel ballrooms, water streamed down walls, and furniture was pushed up against windows as improvised barriers in case doors were smashed open.
Waves surged over the narrow strip of land that holds Cancun's resort hotels yesterday, flooding streets several yards deep as some 30,000 tourists huddled in hotels and shelters. At least three people were killed.
As Wilma's eye passed over Cancun yesterday, the air became calm and eerily electric. Some residents ventured briefly from their hiding spots to survey flooded, debris-filled streets.
Several dozen people looted at least four convenience stores, carrying out bags of canned tuna, pasta and soda, while others dragged tables, chairs and lamps from a destroyed furniture store. Police were guarding only larger stores, including a downtown Wal-Mart and an appliance store.
Downtown Cancun was littered with glass, tree trunks and cars up to their roofs in water. The front half of a Burger King had collapsed, and at least one gas station had its roof blown away.
Wilma weakened to a Category 2 hurricane by midafternoon as it inched northward, with sustained winds of 110 mph, but it was expected to pick up speed today after moving over the Gulf of Mexico. It was likely to sideswipe Cuba before hitting Florida.
A hurricane watch was issued yesterday for the southern Florida Peninsula, with heavy rain from Wilma's outer bands already causing hip-deep flooding in the Fort Lauderdale area.
The only consolation that forecasters could offer was that the pain would be swift. Wilma should cut through Florida in about a day, but that was little relief to the wind-weary veterans of the storms that have hit the area over the past two hurricane seasons.
A big concern is tornadoes, particular powerful F-3 tornadoes with speeds up to 206 mph that can uproot trees, flip over cars and trains, and destroy homes. Evacuations could be necessary for those living in mobile homes and low-lying areas in counties such as Broward and Palm Beach, Fugate said.
But few South Floridians seemed to be paying much attention to the storm on an otherwise normal Saturday of shopping, college football and socializing. Shutters weren't going up in large numbers in many neighborhoods, and lines at supermarkets and gas stations showed little sign of panic. Much had been done days earlier, when residents expected a weekend landfall from Wilma.
In the Keys, evacuations preceded smoothly. It appeared, though, that most people had left Key West before the mandatory evacuation began at noon yesterday. Collier County also urged evacuations Friday for coastal areas, such as Marco Island and parts of Naples.
Around Naples, people could be seen sipping coffee at sidewalk cafes. While workers installed metal panels over the windows at City Hall, several groups hammered away at balls on the clay tennis courts across the street at Cambier Park.
The state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency began positioning supplies and activating search and rescue teams. The teams will be positioned when the hurricane's track becomes more evident, allowing them quick access to the areas affected by the storm.
Tim Collie, Brian Haas and Josh Hafenbrack write for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. The Associated Press contributed to this article.