Hurricane Wilma Strikes Florida; Airports Suffer Severe Damage

Millions of people still shuddered in shuttered homes this morning as the back half of Hurricane Wilma -- carrying viciously destructive wind -- raced through South Florida.

The storm inflicted severe damage. President Bush declared Florida a major disaster area.

More than 2.5 million customers are without power throughout the southern half of the state, including 1.2 million in Miami-Dade and Broward. A blackout darkened the entire city of Homestead. Power failed throughout the Florida Keys.

One man was killed in Coral Springs when he was struck by a falling tree, authorities said.

There were no other immediate reports of casualties, but significant damage already was evident, especially in the Florida Keys, Broward County and parts of Miami-Dade County.

State officials said Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami lost part of its roof, but hospital officials told The Herald they had a leak in one stairwell, it was repaired and the facility sustained no roof damage.

State officials also said that every hospital in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties was relying on generator power.

Many roofs were severely damaged in Pompano Beach, Coral Springs, Carol City and elsewhere. Fire stations reported major damage. Water mains broke and residents of Tamarac, Plantation, Lauderhill and Pompano Beach were advised to boil water before using it.

''I guess I'm going to be one of several hundred thousand looking for a roofer,'' said Susan Schur, who lives in the Devon Aire subdivision in Kendall.

Wilma is the eighth hurricane to strike or brush Florida in 14 months. It could be the worst to hit Broward in 50 years.

''Broward took a hard hit and almost every city is reporting severe damage,'' said Carl Fowler, a spokesman for the county's emergency operations office.

Crashing through the state's back door, Wilma landed along the southwest Gulf Coast as a major Category 3 storm and swiftly rolled its front half and then its eyewall and then its eye through the region.

Just when much of South Florida thought it might be in the clear, the back side of the storm attacked.

Sustained, extraordinarly powerful gusts roared from the west and southwest into Weston, Sunrise, Pembroke Pines and other western suburbs.

In many cases, what the front half left behind, the second half took with it. Barrel tiles peeled off like paper, often slamming through the windows of parked cars. Trees toppled and pool screens collapsed. Rain seeped into many homes.

Jose Fuentes, director of regional services for the South Florida Water Management District, spent the night and day monitoring the smallest rise in canals and tidewater. Then, he received and unexpected and unwanted update.

''My neighbor called and said an avocado tree just went through my carport,'' said Fuentes, who lives in Coconut Grove.

Traffic lights were down throughout South Florida.

''Conditions outside continue to be dangerous,'' Gov. Jeb Bush said at 10:06 a.m. ``Please stay hunkered down. We will get through this storm.''

Serious damage also appeared in downtown Fort Lauderdale and downtown Miami. Many windows shattered in several high-rise buildings in the Brickell area.

''It looks like an explosion,'' said Carmen Rodriguez, who lives in the area.

Wilma's powerful eyewall moved over Fort Lauderdale and all of Broward. It also hit many parts of Miami-Dade. At 11 a.m., the storm's top winds were still 105 mph.

According to the National Weather Service, gusts of 116 mph were reported just off the coast of Key Biscayne, 102 in Lake Okeechobee, 101 mph at Palm Beach International Airport, 95 mph at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, and 85 mph at the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade and in Opa-locka.

Broward officials said they had unconfirmed reports of a 120 mph gust in Pompano Beach, 108 mph in Dania Beach, 105 mph at the Fort Lauderdale courthouse and 100 mph at the Miami Dolphins training camp in Davie.

The storm is carving through the area with lightning speed -- making forward progress at 25 mph -- and authorities urged residents not to venture outside during the brief period of relative calm.

''We're going to see some very hard weather, probably until mid-afternoon,'' said Tony Carper, director of Broward's emergency management office. ``People need to stay indoors and off the road until it's all clear.''

The Florida Keys came under particularly intense attack. Instruments measured wind gusts of 120 mph at Cudjoe Key, 101 mph at Sombrero Key and 74 mph at Long Key.

Key West International Airport, the city's only airport, suffered severe damage, with at least five feet of storm surge near the entrance and as many as three feet of water on the runway.

A building that housed Cape Air was destroyed, according to airport director Peter Horton. The airport's tower was damaged, as were 100 cars in the airport's parking lot.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy said the runway at Naval Air Station Key West's Boca Chica facility is under water and workers are assessing the damage.

Forecasters warned that eight-foot storm surges could sweep over the Keys. Sea water already severed U.S. 1 around Mile Markers 31, 73 and 110.

''We have a real disaster here,'' Key West Police Chief Bill Mauldin told a Key West city commissioner. ``We are in sad shape right now.''

Authorities in Miami-Dade said conditions compelled them to stop responding to most 911 calls for help. At the hurricane center, forecasters lowered storm shutters over the doors. The blue-green glow of electrical transformers exploding lit the sky over Miami International Airport.

Roof damage, downed trees and significant street flooding were reported in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Weston, which sat directly under the worst part of the eyewall.

Fences and screen enclosures blew away in Cooper City. At least one office building in Pembroke Pines lost its front door, leaving the lobby flooded.

In the initial hours of the storm, a 250-foot construction crane reportedly collapsed onto coastal State Road A1A in Hallandale Beach.

''It was spinning around, counterclockwise,'' said Stu Rabin, who was watching from a nearby apartment building. 'I was like, `Holy cow!' It was bending, bending to the north, and in five seconds it went 'Boom!' ''

In downtown Miami, the headquarters of law firm Greenberg Traurig, a highrise at 15th and Brickell Avenue, took a terrible hit from the storm, said Rodriguez, the Brickell resident.

''About 80 percent of the windows have blown out,'' said Rodriguez, who owns an insurance agency in Coral Gables.

Looking down on the street from her condo, Rodriguez said she could see at least three feet of water on the street on Brickell Bay Drive. ''The one car on the street has water almost up to the window,'' she said.

The leading edge of Wilma's touched the mainland at Cape Romano as a major, Category 3 hurricane. Landfall came just before 6:30 a.m., about 20 miles south of Marco Island along the lower Gulf Coast in a largely uninhabited area.

Wilma's maximum winds were measured at 125 mph at landfall, making it a strong Category 3 hurricane.

Then, the eye rolled across the state, largely along Alligator Alley, and moved through populated areas of Broward and Miami-Dade.

Four tornadoes were reported around the state, including one that caused some damage at the Kennedy Space Center.

Power outages continued to spread -- minute by minute, block by block.

In Miami-Dade, significant outages were reported in Kendall, Miami Gardens, Coral Gables, Hialeah and North Miami Beach, according to officials at the county's emergency operations center.

The city of Homestead, which generates its own electricity, was completely without power.

Repair crews, including those in 1,000 utility trucks waiting to the north, cannot be deployed until winds fall below 30 mph -- which could be late this afternoon.

In Weston, power repeatedly blinked on and off. In the Falls subdivision, residents could be heard cheering ''F-P-L, F-P-L,'' every time electricity returned.

In the Keys, damage reports were spotty, but flooding on the Atlantic Ocean side of Key West was extensive, according to Billy Wagner Sr., Monroe County's senior emergency manager. Some reports mentioned four feet of water in the city.

''They're getting clobbered all the way up the Keys,'' Wagner said.

He also said flooding in Marathon was worse than during Hurricane Georges, which pounded its way through the Florida Keys in 1998.

In Miami-Dade, the wind and rain compelled authorities to close the Rickenbacker Causeway between the mainland and Key Biscayne, except for emergency vehicle, though even they were affected by Wilma.

The county's fire and emergency vehicles stopped responding to 911 calls shortly after 6 a.m. -- standard procedure when winds begin reaching hurricane strength.

Emergency calls ''will be handled on a case by case basis,'' said Cynthia Martinez, spokeswoman for Miami-Dade's office of emergency management.

''The wind is just too strong and too dangerous,'' she said.

In Sunny Isles Beach, the wind rattled windows, bent palms trees and bounce electric wires. Police on the Bravo portion of an emergency Alpha/Bravo shift monitored events from their station.

''All we know is what we see on the TV,'' said Sgt. Edward Santiago. ``It's just too dangerous out there.''

A massive storm tide -- up to 18 feet -- occurred along the Gulf Coast in south Collier County. Roads to Marco Island, Everglades City and Chokoloskee are believed to be flooded.

Forecasters warned that some causeways in Miami-Dade could be flooded by three to five feet of water later this morning.

Around the region:

Some parts of Key West were believed to be under at least four feet of water, with at least 30 percent of the city severely flooded, but officials could not get outside to accurately assess the situation.

''There is flooding in New Town. The worst is by the high school,'' said Michael Haskins, a spokesman for the city.

Power was out in Key West and other areas of the Keys and parts of U.S. 1 and other roads were believed to be impassable. A water main break in Key West sharply reduced water pressure and triggered concerns over water quality.

Officials at Monroe's primary Emergency Operations Center in Marathon and the EOC in Key West were operating on generator power. Cell service was out in many areas.

Power lines sparked a fire at the home of county Administrator Tom Willi on Summerland Key, but firefighters were not yet able to respond to the scene because of weather conditions.

Also in the Keys, waves of water turned parts of Marathon into mammoth pools.

At the Pelican Motel Trailer Park, three cars were completely submerged, and water had risen almost to the halfway point of most trailer homes.

''It's amazing,'' said Steve Ferrise. ``It happened so fast -- in just 15 minutes.''

Because the water shorted out so many electrical wires in nearby cars, even submerged and empty vehicles had windshield wipers and alarms going off, on their own.

In Naples, just north of the point of landfall, blasts of wind brought down stoplights, picked apart a few trailers and sent one garden shed skittering over U.S. 41.

Sheets of peeled-off aluminum siding flew through the air. Some trees toppled and palm fronds littered the streets.

In Fort Myers, a little farther north, curtains of rain lashed the area, flooding parking lots and invading low-lying buildings.

The roof at one Lee County Fire Department station lifted off, and Lehigh Regional Medical Center was forced to move patients into different rooms when wind damaged the roof, said David Kainrad, a spokesman for the Lee County Emergency Operations Center.

Nearly 400,000 homes were without power in the region.

In Immokalee, a rural town about 20 miles from Naples that is heavily populated by migrant workers, there were reports of ramshackle trailers being knocked down, something community leaders feared and expected.

Thousands of illegal workers live in substandard trailers there, and though labor advocates prowled the streets with passengers vans and bullhorns until shortly before midnight Sunday, not everyone could be coaxed out, said Melody Gonzalez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

By one estimate, only half of the people living in the trailers sought safe shelter.

In West Palm Beach, bands of heavy winds arrived before dawn, cutting power to some of the city's oldest neighborhoods.

Following Frances and Jeanne last year, Wilma is the third storm to damage Palm Beach County. And, as in the rest of the state, residents are extremely tired of this sort of thing.

''I don't know how much more we can take,'' said Lowell Farber, owner of Seaside Shutters. ``This is good for business. But I don't want this anymore. People are scared.''

In Martin County along the East Coast, near where Wilma was forecast to reach the Atlantic around noon, the pre-dawn darkness brought swift gusts of warm damp air, seasoned occasionally with sprinkles of rain.

Wind whined in the massive communications tower above the emergency operations center. Underneath it, in a bunker banked with sod, emergency management workers watched the progress of the storm or prepared for the aftermath while others caught a few minutes of sleep -- preparing for a busy day.

In Palm Beach County, five shelters operated on generator power after the electricity failed.

About 5,000 people were staying in 17 Red Cross shelters as of 7 a.m. in Palm Beach County.

Herald staff writers Susan Anasagasti, Erika Bolstad, Therasa Bradley, Elinor J. Brecher, Cara Buckley, Marc Caputo, Lesley Clark, Manny Garcia, Carolyn Guniss, Monica Hatcher, Eric Kalis, Mary Ellen Klas, Phil Long, Tere Figueras Negrete, David Ovalle, Amy Sherman, Ben Torter, Nicole White and Dave Wilson contributed to this report.

Miami Herald

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