'Rocket' Wilma aims at Florida

Monday, October 24, 2005

Hurricane leaves Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula battered with at least three dead.

KEY WEST, Fla. -- Rain pounded Key West late Sunday as Hurricane Wilma accelerated toward storm-weary Florida, threatening residents with 115-mph winds, tornadoes and a surge of seawater that could flood the Keys and the state's southwest coast.

The Category 3 hurricane was expected to make landfall before dawn today in the state's southwest corner, likely near Naples and Marco Island, National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said.

The fast-moving storm was then forecast to slice northeast across the state at up to 25 mph.

Already Sunday, tornadoes spun off from the massive storm system had damaged a restaurant in Cocoa Beach and an orchid nursery on Merritt Island, near Kennedy Space Center.

"I cannot emphasize enough to the folks that live in the Florida Keys: A hurricane is coming," Gov. Jeb Bush told state residents Sunday afternoon.

The entire southern Florida peninsula has been under a hurricane warning since Saturday, and an estimated 160,000 residents were told to evacuate, but many in the low-lying Keys island chain stayed.

"They're going to be in deep trouble," warned Billy Wagner, Monroe County emergency management director.

Forecasters warned of flooding from a storm surge of up to 17 feet on the southwest coast and 8 feet in the Keys, where streets were already running with water Sunday night.

Because the storm was expected to move so swiftly across Florida, residents of Atlantic coast cities were also likely to face hurricane-force winds, nearly as strong as those on the Gulf Coast, forecasters said. At least three tornadoes were confirmed ahead of the storm, near Fort Drum, Kenansville and Cocoa Beach, and a waterspout was spotted off Key West.

Despite the repeated warnings, fewer than 10 percent of the Keys' 78,000 residents evacuated, Monroe County Sheriff Richard Roth said.

"I'm disappointed, but I understand it," Roth said. "They're tired of leaving because of the limited damage they sustained during the last three hurricanes."

Wilma was Florida's eighth hurricane since August 2004 and the fourth evacuation of the Keys this year.

But the storm had already proved its damaging potential. Wilma battered the Mexican coastline with howling winds and torrential rains, killing at least three people. Thirteen others died in Jamaica and Haiti, and four bodies were found off Cozumel, though it wasn't clear if they were killed by the storm.

Gov. Bush wrote his brother, President Bush, asking that Florida be granted a major disaster declaration for 14 counties. Many of the areas bracing for Wilma were hit by hurricanes in the past two years.

The National Guard was on alert, and state and federal officials had trucks of ice and food ready to deploy. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was poised to send in dozens of military helicopters and 13.2 million ready-to-eat meals if needed, spokesman Butch Kinerney said.

By Sunday evening, the hurricane's outer bands were lashing the Florida Keys.

At 10 p.m. Sunday, Wilma was centered about 120 miles west of Key West, 170 miles southwest of Naples and moving northeast at about 18 mph. Hurricane-force wind of at least 74 mph extended up to 85 miles from the center and wind blowing at tropical storm-force reached outward up to 230 miles, the hurricane center said.

It was markedly different than conditions Sunday morning in the Keys, when sunshine beckoned boaters onto the water and many residents went about their normal routines.

"We were born and raised with storms, so we never leave," Ann Ferguson said from her front porch in Key West. "What happens, happens. If you believe in the Lord, you don't have no fear."

Some 100 Key West parishioners attended Mass at a Catholic church where a grotto built in the 1920s is said to provide protection from dangerous storms. Ray Price took his usual stroll down Duval Street to check out the ocean.

"Another day in paradise," Price said.

Some people shared that attitude on the mainland. At a park for recreational vehicles in Fort Myers Beach, Leonard Hasbrouck stood bare-chested as a fire truck rolled by blaring a warning.

"Mandatory evacuation," a firefighter shouted into a loudspeaker. "You are hereby ordered to leave your residence by the board of county commissioners of Lee County, Fla."

"They came by yesterday," Hasbrouck said. "I told them, 'I'm not going to ask you to rescue me."'

George Delgado of Miami was still covering the windows of his house with plywood Sunday. He said he waited until the last minute to make sure the hours of work were necessary.

"I was hoping it would turn some other way," Delgado said.

On Florida's Gulf Coast, evacuation orders covered barrier islands and coastal areas in Collier and Lee counties, such as Fort Myers Beach, Marco Island, Sanibel and parts of Naples.

Visitors crossing the bridge into Marco Island Sunday were greeted by an electric sign that flashed, "EVACUATE, EVACUATE."

More than 22,600 people were in shelters across the state, including roughly 850 people at the Germain Arena near Fort Myers, where evacuees pitched tents and placed mats on the ice rink where a minor-league hockey team plays. Cots and sleeping bags lined hallways outside the rink.

David Bright sat nearby on a chair, a Bible beside him. He's old enough to remember plenty of other hurricanes, including destructive Donna in 1960.

"I'm just doing a lot of praying that things will work out," he said. "I'm born and raised right here in Fort Myers, Fla., and just know you don't play with them."

Associated Press writers Allen Breed in Naples, Erik Schelzig in Marathon, Mike Schneider in Marco Island, Melissa Trujillo in Oakland Park, and Ron Word and Brent Kallestad in Miami contributed to this story.

On the Net:

National Hurricane Center: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov

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