Flooding, power outages spread through Florida

At least 6 deaths blamed on Hurricane Wilma

Keys cut off after swift passage of storm

October 25, 2005|By JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG AND ELIZABETH MEHREN | JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG AND ELIZABETH MEHREN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NAPLES, FLA. -- Hurricane Wilma pounded its way across Florida yesterday, killing at least six people and causing widespread flooding, power outages and property damage.

The storm moved with fierce speed, making landfall on Florida's west coast about 6:30 a.m. at Cape Romano, a deserted area south of Marco Island. Within six hours, Wilma had traversed the width of the narrow state, moving out to sea near Palm Beach.

Only the Florida Panhandle was spared as Wilma delivered wind gusts of 100 mph and more, shutting 19 airports across the state. By midafternoon, Florida's east coast was cleared of rainfall.

With sustained winds of 125 mph at landfall, Wilma weakened from a Category 3 hurricane to a Category 2 as it crossed the state, then quickly intensified again to a Category 3 as it left Florida and headed up the Atlantic.

The remnants of Wilma were expected to combine with another storm system to bring windy and wet weather to the Northeast today, from Virginia to New England. Snow was likely in higher elevations.

As Florida reeled yesterday from its eighth hurricane in 13 months, President Bush authorized a major disaster declaration, making federal aid immediately available in most of the state.

David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said more than 6 million Florida homes were without power yesterday. He said about 36,000 people had sought refuge in 124 shelters.

But the major concern was for those who ignored days of warning about Wilma and remained in their homes. Paulison said disaster teams were especially worried about "those who remained in mobile homes," a typical form of housing in Florida.

Emergency officials said that in the Florida Keys, about 90 percent of residents refused to heed evacuation orders.

Much of the Keys were swamped by sea water pushed by Wilma's winds, local officials said yesterday. The flooding appeared to be the worst in years.

Electric power was out yesterday to the entire island chain, according to Greg Artman, a Monroe County emergency operations spokesman. U.S. Highway 1, the Overseas Highway and the only link with mainland Florida, was blocked in two places and impassable, he said. A water main that supplies Key West had broken because of the storm, and Artman said Key West International Airport was under water and had been severely damaged.

Colleen Englert, a spokeswoman for the state emergency operations center in Tallahassee, said one man was killed in Collier County when his roof collapsed.

In St. Johns County in northeastern Florida, far from Wilma's path, a female passenger in an automobile who was fleeing from the storm died when the vehicle had a blowout and overturned, Englert said.

In Naples, on the west coast, palm trees snapped at mid-trunk at 8:30 a.m. yesterday as a gust measured at 121 mph clobbered the community.

Damage also extended inland, as Wilma ripped from coast to coast. In Clewiston, about 60 miles inland in the center of Florida, streets were flooded and 200-year-old trees lay on their sides. Shop windows were blown out, and some mobile homes were flipped off their concrete foundations.

Emergency officials said it was a blessing that Wilma hit hardest in an uninhabited area, Everglades National Park.

Chris Landsea, a forecaster with the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said the hurricane temporarily raised the water level in that area by 12 to 18 feet.

But on the island of Cuba, much of the capital city, Havana, was submerged yesterday as roadways turned into saltwater rivers.

Coastal fishing towns were evacuated before the storm, but many people remained at home in Havana - where Wilma became the worst storm to hit since 1993.

The storm also battered Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. President Vicente Fox ordered troops yesterday into Cancun, where some looting occurred.

Officials said it could take up to two months to restore Cancun's flourishing tourism trade.

John-Thor Dahlburg and Elizabeth Mehren are reporters for the Los Angeles Times.

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