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Fort Lauderdale Damage Worst in 55 Years

October 24, 2005

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) _ Hurricane Wilma left a wide, messy swath of damage Monday as it sped across Florida with winds of more than 100 mph, shattering skyscraper windows, peeling off roofs and knocking out power to at least 3.2 million customers from Key West to Daytona Beach.

At least three deaths were blamed on Wilma, and even storm-savvy Floridians found the hurricane fearsome as it sliced through the middle of heavily populated South Florida. It was the worst hurricane to hit the Fort Lauderdale area since King in 1950, Broward County officials said.

The Category 3 hurricane littered the landscape with damaged signs, awnings, fences, billboards, roof tiles, pool screens, street lights and electrical lines. Felled trees dotted even expressways.

More than one-third of Key West flooded, cutting off the island, and there was scattered floodwater elsewhere. In Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Miami Beach, high-rises had countless windows blown out, including at the Broward County Courthouse and the 14-story school board office building.

``Fort Lauderdale hasn’t seen anything this bad in a long time,″ said Adam Baer, 27, a courthouse employee and lifelong resident. Across the street, a water cooler from an office above rested on the sidewalk.

All the Florida Keys was without power, and outages extended as far north as Daytona Beach, an eight-hour drive up I-95 from Key West.

The eighth hurricane to strike Florida in 15 months made landfall around 6:30 a.m. EDT near Cape Romano, an uninhabited island south of Naples in Collier County on Florida’s southwest coast. Wilma moved northeast at 25 mph, and devastating winds reached Florida’s east coast by midmorning.

Gusts exceeded 100 mph in suburban Fort Lauderdale and Miami, where winds howled in the bunker-like National Hurricane Center. A Coral Springs man died when a tree fell on him, Broward County spokesman Carl Fowler said.

A man in the rural Immokalee area in Collier County died when either his roof collapsed on him or a tree fell on his roof, county spokesman John Torre said. In Loxahatchee in Palm Beach County, a man went to move his van during Wilma’s eye and wind-borne debris smashed him into the windshield of his vehicle.

By early afternoon, cleanup had begun. Monique Kilgore used a handsaw and shears to get rid of debris in front of her Fort Lauderdale town house.

``I want my house to look nice,″ she said. ``I’m also bored. I can’t sit in the house any longer. No power, no lights _ you know.″

President Bush promised swift action. He signed a disaster declaration for hurricane-damaged areas and was briefed on the situation by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, acting FEMA director David Paulison and Bush’s brother, Gov. Jeb Bush.

``We have prepositioned food, medicine, communications equipment, urban search-and-rescue teams,″ the president said. ``We will work closely with local and state authorities to respond to this hurricane.″

The same storm that brought ruin over the weekend to resort towns in Mexico weakened before leaving the Yucatan Coast, then regained strength in the Gulf of Mexico before striking Florida.

In South Florida’s sprawling suburbs, the blue glow of exploding transformers illuminated the pre-dawn sky, and the storm stirred whitecaps even on neighborhood lakes.

Broken water mains in the Fort Lauderdale area prompted advisories to boil water, and a busted main in downtown Miami sprayed water 15 feet in the air, flooding several blocks of Brickell Avenue.

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 Key West, the southernmost point in the United States moved a little farther north. Water from the gulf spilled over the spot marking the tourist point in Key West, and streets were flooded four blocks inland.

``Within 45 minutes, it went from six inches to four or five feet deep,″ said Chris Elwell, whose new Porsche Boxster was submerged to the roof. A Coast Guard station in the Keys was under four feet of water.

Even amateur hurricane chaser Josh Morgerman was impressed. Morgerman, a marketing executive from Los Angeles, 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.″

Morgerman said the hurricane was his fourth and ``absolutely the most shocking.″

Eqecat Inc., a risk modeling firm, said early estimates projected that Wilma’s insured losses would range from $2 billion to $6 billion. AIR Worldwide Corp. estimated that insurance companies will have to pay claims ranging from $6 billion to $9 billion.

Gov. Bush said 4,000 utility workers were ready to restore power. The North Carolina National Guard 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 wasn’t 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.

To underscore the storm’s vast reach, a tornado touched down near Melbourne on the east coast, 200 miles from landfall, damaging an apartment complex. No one was injured.

Closer to landfall, seven firefighters with Ochopee fire control district were at their station when a tornado spawned by Wilma hit.

``We fought for two hours trying to stay alive,″ said chief Paul Wilson, whose white shirt was stained with debris. ``We braced (the doors) with six-by-sixes, 12-by-twos, trucks, ropes, ladders. Firemen can be creative, especially when it means live or die.″

The snowbird enclave Marco Island was littered with damaged street signs, roofing shingles, awnings and fences. Only 3,000 of the 15,000 residents stayed for the storm, the island’s public works director said.

Parts of the Tamiami Trail, the main thoroughfare in Naples, were flooded with about a half-foot of water. The ritzy Fifth-Avenue downtown district was covered with tree branches.

Paul Tucchinio of Naples watched from his apartment as palm fronds flew past and transformers exploded as the storm made landfall.

``Oh wow. I can see blue sparks,″ Tucchinio said. ``It sounds like someone threw a bunch of rocks against the boards. It’s wicked.″

At 4 p.m. EDT, Wilma had cleared the state and was centered over the Atlantic about 200 miles northeast of West Palm Beach with wind of 115 mph. It was moving northeast at about 29 mph.

The hurricane was expected to race up the Atlantic Seaboard and reach the coast of Canada by early Wednesday. Forecasters said Wilma should absorb Tropical Depression Alpha along the way, but both should stay offshore. Another weather system heading from the west in Ohio could drop 2 to 4 inches of rain from Pennsylvania through New England by Wednesday evening.

Florida’s strongest sustained winds of about 125 mph were felt on the southwest coast, said Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center. On the east coast, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties felt mostly Category 1 winds of 74-95 mph, with some places there getting Category 2 winds of 96-110-mph, he said.

Weary forecasters also monitored Tropical Depression Alpha, two days after that system formed off the Dominican Republic. Alpha briefly became a tropical storm, the record 22nd named storm for the Atlantic season, but wasn’t considered a threat to the United States.

___

Associated Press writers Allen Breed in Naples, Erik Schelzig in Marathon, David Royse in Key West, and Ron Word, Adrian Sainz and Brent Kallestad in Miami contributed to this story.

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