Hurricane Wilma charged toward southwest Florida early Monday as a Category 3 storm, packing wind gusts of 125 mph (200 kph), spawning tornadoes and churning up walls of seawater that could make thousands of residents regret they defied evacuation orders. Wilma was expected to bring a 17-foot (5-meter) storm surge when it makes landfall before dawn in the state's southwest corner, likely near Naples and Marco Island, National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield said.
"This is a very dangerous hurricane," said Mayfield. "People need to stay hunkered down."
At 5 a.m. EDT (0900MT), Wilma was a powerful Category 3 centered about 55 miles (88 kilometers) southwest of Naples and moving northeast at about 20 mph (32 kph) with no signs of weakening.
Hurricane-force wind of at least 74 mph (120 kph) extended up to 90 miles (145 kilometers) from the center and wind blowing at tropical storm-force reached outward up to 230 miles (370 kilometers), the hurricane center said.
More than 22,600 people were in shelters across the state. But in the low-lying Florida Keys, not even 10 percent of the Keys' 78,000 residents evacuated, Sheriff Richard Roth said.
Gov. Jeb Bush asked 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.
Wilma is Florida's eighth hurricane in 15 months and prompted the fourth evacuation of the Keys this year. It earlier battered the Mexican coastline with howling winds and torrential rains.
At least three people were killed in Mexico. 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. President Fidel Castro appeared on a television program to calm Cubans. The extent of damage in Cuba's north was still unknown. Cuban authorities were concerned about possible coastal flooding in the northern provinces of Pinar del Rio and Havana.
Forecasters also monitored Tropical Depression Alpha, which became the record-breaking 22nd named storm of the 2005 Atlantic season.